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MIREILLE MATHIEU

OUI JE CROIS
Abridged text of the autobiography

Translated into English

by Anna Dorofeeva

Part 1. CHILDHOOD

Parents

Marcelle-Sophie Poirier was born in Rosendale. The city of Dunkirk was not far away, and she went to
live there with her grandmother and older sister. Some time before the war her sister died of tuberculosis,
notwithstanding all of Marcelle’s attempts to save her. Once the war began, 18-year-old Marcelle went to
work, sewing tarpaulin covers for railway stations.
27th May 1940 the Germans bombed Dunkirk, Marcelle and her grandmother sought refuge in the cellar.
When they went back up, they saw only ruins... Some time later her grandmother had to be hospitalised, while
Marcelle lived in poverty, like many others.
In September 1940 her grandmother dies. Marcelle tries to find her mother and goes to the café where she
used to work, but doesn’t find her. The mistress of the café employs the young woman to look after her son,
whose mind has been damaged by the war: he is afraid of people and daylight. Marcelle becomes attached to
the toddler, and attempts to return him to normal life. In 1944 the bombings begin again, and the owner of the
café moves in with her cousin in Avignon, taking Marcelle with her. In Avignon the mother looks after her
son herself, and Marcelle has to find a job. Responding to an advertisement, she is employed in the city hall,
filling in bread cards. After one and a half years she begins to be bored with the work, as the cards are
withdrawn and there is nothing much to do. But quitting is impossible - she has to earn her living, as she still
lives with the former mistress of the café, who takes all her earnings, giving her only 20 centimes on Sundays.
Marcelle saves even this, dreaming of collecting enough to buy a wedding dress. She has fallen in love.
It happened one September at the ball in the city square. A young man called Roger Mathieu, the son of
the stonemason, asked her to dance. The pair began to talk, she told him of her life in Dunkirk in the years of
the war...
They never parted after that. Marcelle went to work at the paper factory. She often visited the workshop of
Mathieu senior, where he laboured with the stones that he carefully picked out himself. The profession of
stonemason had been passed on in the Mathieu family from father to son for many generations. Roger, who
had a wonderful tenor voice, once spoke about trying out in opera, but received a stern rebuke from his father.
In April 1946 the young couple happily said ‘yes’ before the mayor and the priest, and it happened even
later than it should have, as Marcelle already bore her first child.
Mireille was born on the 22nd of July.
Relatives exclaimed over how such a diminutive woman could produce a strong and healthy child, but her
mother-in-law had her own recipes, passed down from her ancestors over hundreds of years. And Marcelle
needed to be in good health. The war had left its mark on her husband. He was there when Saarbrücken was
bombed, and he received a concussion. His arm bent only with difficulty, and he found it hard to turn his
head. When he already had a wife and child, he found that the work of a stonemason was too hard for him. He
became depressed, so that his wife had to simultaneously look after him and little Mireille, and do work
around the house, which was less than comfortable: the walls had moisture seeping from them, water had to
be fetched from the courtyard outside, from the water pump, the way to the lavatory lay through the
neighbours’ garden...
Winter was especially hard - it was cold, damp and gloomy. Roger was very weak, he didn’t even go
outside. Christmas approached, and Marcelle really wanted to celebrate it, the first Christmas of her married
life.
- ‘Celebrate? But how?’ wondered her husband. ‘We have no money.’
- ‘Let us say, we have a little... ’
And she sold her earrings. They were all she managed to save in Dunkirk. The gold earrings with small
pearls had been the confirmation present from her grandmother.
- ‘Using this money,’ said Marcelle, drawing out five hundred franks, ‘we can hold a Christmas dinner for
the whole family. We’ll invite your parents and sister Irene, serve roast meat with vegetables, and with the
remaining money buy clay figurines of saints.’
Here Roger smiled for the first time in a long while.
- ‘A wonderful idea!’ He cried. ‘And I’ll make a Christmas crèche.’
And he went to work at once, forgetting all about his illness. He had a steady eye and hand - he quickly
drew cottages, a sheep pen, bridge, horse stalls. He cut, fitted, glued... up until then he had only hewn
gravestones, but now he showed the talent of a miniature artist: from pieces of bark he folded stone walls... he
made a chapel and then a windmill... Leaving the house for the first time in three months, he went to the
forest, bringing moss and lots of small sticks to make toy trees.
When everything was ready, there was plenty of space for the clay figurines. Neighbours and relatives
came to admire the crèche:
- ‘Well, Roger, it looks like you’re on the mend!’
- ‘It’s one thing to work with cardboard, and another - with stone!’
Nonetheless he began to regain his health and in the spring was already able to take up his hammer and
chisel.
- ‘We owe this miraculous recovery to the Christmas crèche,’ claimed Marcelle. ‘The crèche, linked to our
little Mireille! We will put it up every year.’
In forty years Mireille Mathieu came to Avignon for Christmas. Much had changed there, but the crèche
had survived. Everything that her father had made from paper and cardboard was intact. His windmill, houses
and stalls still bring delight - this time to Roger Mathieu’s grandchildren.
Family Mathieu (about 1950)
Mireille tells the story

The first celebration of Christmas I remember was when I was four years old. By that time Papa had
completely recovered, and he had regained his customary cheerfulness. He sang at home and in the workshop,
and listening to him, I stayed still as though under a spell. Whenever I heard him sing I copied his tone and
words, like a canary. This delighted him, and eventually he declared that I must participate in the singing
celebrations.
This was another local tradition. After the solemn mass, amateur choral singers who lived nearby gathered
in the hall of the charity society, which adjoined the church Notre-Dame de France. Dressed in traditional
costumes they acted out different scenes, sang and danced. I understood almost nothing of what was
happening, but Father stubbornly insisted that I should also sing something.
- ‘She is much too young,’ disagreed my mother. ‘And she is so shy and scared that you will make her a
clown in front of everyone,’ she added.
- ‘A clown!’ Grumbled my father. ‘I’ll make a nightingale of her, not a clown!’
They sewed me a charming dress. At rehearsal I sang well, just like at home, and didn’t move my eyes
from my father, who stood down by the stage. But in the evening...
I panicked: the hall was full of people, those who knew me spoke to me... I sang, but already in the fourth
bar I stumbled. In despair I sought Papa with my eyes. He began to prompt me, I didn’t understand anything,
as though my mind had switched off. But he didn’t abandon his efforts, and, to everyone’s happiness, I came
out of it. And for the first time I experienced excitement, emotion, true anxiety, as I had for the first time
performed in front of an audience and earned my first applause. Papa gave me a lollipop. No one knew that it
was my first earning as a singer.
When Papa stayed home - whether because he was sick, whether there was no need to carve gravestones
or work in the cemetery, whether my mother was in the hospital or the birth house - what a thoughtful father
he was!
Our parents never hit us. We never knew what smacks and slaps were. These words served as punishment:
- ‘You make me very, very disappointed, my daughter. I cannot trust you anymore.’
And after that no one looked at me for hours, no one spoke to me, as if I wasn’t even there. It tore at the
heart. Things were much more scary than when Grandmama tried to frighten us with the bogeyman. These
threats worked only on babies. And in the meantime, I had almost imperceptibly reached that age which is
called conscious. For a long time I remembered kindergarten and its mistress, Mme Ober, with sadness. I
never came to love my school teachers. I cannot even remember what they were called.
My first unhappy memory of school is linked with writing classes. I tried so hard. After observing how
carefully my father and grandfather hewed gravestone inscriptions in their workshop, I drew letters just as
carefully in my writing book...
The teacher stopped behind my desk, and suddenly I heard her sharp voice:
- ‘Mireille! Don’t write with your left hand!’
I stared at her in surprise. I had tried so hard, I had even bitten my lips so much they bled. My letters were
so neat... but I had been left-handed from birth.
- ‘Give me your hands,’ demanded the teacher.
I innocently extended my hand out to her... and smack! She slapped me with a ruler. From then on I
always tried to be on my guard and hide my fingers, but she got to them anyway and hit me harder each time.
- ‘You are so stubborn! Write with your right hand!’
I would have been happy to, but nothing came of it. As soon as I took a pencil into my right hand, it
stopped moving they way I wanted it to, and however much I tried, all I ended up with was unintelligible
scrawls. My teacher didn’t understand this, and she soon took against me. Her harsh order constantly sounded
above my ear: ‘Write with your right hand! Your right hand! You are so stubborn!’. And after that, a slap with
the ruler.
In the end I learned to somehow write with my right hand; and my left one was often bruised... those hits
with the ruler!
After that I became dyslexic. Possibly, it was because I tried so hard to write with my right hand and not
the left, that I began to make mistakes. In my speech the consonants changed places, moving from right to left
and vice versa.
My dyslexia entertained my friends considerably, but it worried me more each day. I almost tried to chase
after the words coming off my tongue, attempting to catch them (I stumbled over sounds the way others
stumble at the threshold of a door). Therefore, when reading out loud, I always hesitated. And the teacher
decided: since I don’t pay attention in class... my place is at the bottom! She achieved my indeed ceasing to
listen to her explanations. I did not understand her at all, and she didn’t understand me.
At school

My mother, of course, guessed that I had some problems, but she had enough of her own. We lived in
cramped quarters, and so I knew of her troubles. More than once, I heard her say:
- ‘The landlady came today. I gave her five hundred franks for the house... and now I don’t know how
we’ll last till the end of the week.’
Another time she complained:
- ‘We need to buy a pair of shoes, but even if we put together all the money we have, then... ’
And sometimes there was this:
- ‘No, we’ll be unable to stay within the budget again this month.’
In front of my eyes there now appears a small room on the first floor, which served as a kitchen, dining
room and bedroom (before going to bed my parents moved the table to the wall and unfolded the sofa-bed),
my mother is sitting and peeling potatoes, it is getting dark, my father comes home from work. He says,
‘today I couldn’t buy any meat again... ’ - ‘My poor Roger,’ replies my mother, ‘I am sad most of all because
you won’t eat properly... ’ She knew very well how difficult his work was! Stone is hard to work in any
season, whether during cold or severe heat. A lot of strength is needed. And Mother was always afraid that he
would fall ill again.
Potatoes, lentils, stale bread and garlic soup - that is what we usually ate... but we felt happy, because we
were all together.
At home we always found spare food for those who were worse off than us. Occasionally in winter there
would come a knock at the door.
- ‘Ah, that is Charlot!’ My father would say.
And it would be Charlot.
I never found out his real name. No, he did not at all resemble Charlie Chaplin. Of course, like him he was
a tramp and carried all his belongings in an old children’s pram. His venerable patriarch’s head was graced by
a long beard, he wore an old beret and never let go of an ancient umbrella, which had long ago lost its original
form.
- ‘Come in, warm yourself a little,’ invited my father.
The old man sat next to the stove, and Mama gave him a plate of soup. Sometimes he would bring with
him an old tin can: it would serve instead of a pot.
- ‘Take this with you,’ my mother would say, filling it with lentils or peas...
- ‘Why does he come to us, Mama?’ I asked later. ‘Doesn’t he have his own house?’
- ‘No, he does have a roof over his head. But it would be better if he didn’t. His own brother stole
everything he had from him. Before, Charlot had money and land, and now the poor man has nothing left at
all.’
- ‘Isn’t he a little bit crazy?’
- ‘You would be a little bit crazy too, if you had lived through something like that. His brother is acting
like a lord, and his sister-in-law is a real witch. They gave him a shed to live in and don’t let him in the house.
And once, when poor Charlot forgot his gate key, he had to crawl through the fence, regardless of his old age,
risking cutting his stomach open.’
We children loved Charlot. He spoke little, but sometimes told interesting stories, helping himself by
gesticulating; he always looked at us kindly. He always ate with such enjoyment... he left, then returned to our
happiness, since he liked our family. And then once...
- ‘Have you heard what’s happened to Charlot? He was found on the side of the road, curled up under a
tree. He must have died last night, it was so cold... ’
That night I could not sleep for a long time. I kept on thinking about Charlot, who died alone in the icy
darkness of night, while we all lay warm together, heating each other.
- ‘We should have kept him with us, Papa... ’
- ‘Of course, we could have put a mattress for him in the corner. But he had his own pride, do you
understand, my daughter?’
No, I did not understand at all. Why didn’t his brother, who had robbed him, end up in jail? And why
couldn’t Charlot have lived in his nice warm house, where he wouldn’t have suffered from cold?

For some time everything went well with us, but that year the winter was especially harsh. The cold
insistently entered the house through various cracks. And illness also came knocking at the door. Mama’s legs
began to seep blood.
- ‘My dear little quails,’ she said to me and my little sister Matite. ‘You’ll have to replace me, take on my
work around the house... ’
This was not easy, we were still so small. Although I was already six and a half years old, I had not grown
much. To put a basin of water to wash the dishes on the stove, I had to climb onto a bench... and the basin was
heavy, very heavy. I could not lift large pots and had to wash them with cold water. And the water in the
pump was icy. The winter was so severe that people avoided going outside. We felt very lonely. Then, our
grandmother did not live with us, but in the country.
The cold plagued the house mercilessly. The stove stood in the middle of the lower room, but upstairs our
teeth chattered hard. Papa really tried to warm us up. He put bricks on the oven, and when they heated, he
brought them to us in bed; when we undressed at night, he lit spirits in a bowl, but there was only ever enough
heat for two minutes. When Christiane began to cough, I understood at once that we wouldn’t escape illness
either. Families with many children share everything, even microbes.
Christmas approached, the most difficult of my life... to lift our moods, Papa once again began work on
his crèche.
- ‘These are the hardest times for us,’ he’d say. ‘Mama will return soon, and things will be better. In the
meantime, we have to hold on.’
More bad luck: Grandmama fell ill, and it was a long distance from her village to the hospital where
Mama lay. Papa visited sometimes his wife, sometimes his mother, walking both ways. Our poor Papa: what
did he look like now!
On that unlucky Christmas night he was also trudging along a dark road.
Matite had a fever, she was sick too. Now I was totally alone.
- ‘Mireille is a brave little soldier!’ our doctor Monoret would say often. This was because I was the most
sturdy of the children. I had already had chicken-pox and whooping-cough, but I always became sick last and
recovered first.
That night I wasn’t ‘a brave little soldier’, but ‘a lonely warrior’, exhausted and without the spirit to fight
any longer.
I thought that in a minute I would just die there, in front of this heavy basin filled with dirty water, which I
had no more strength to lift. In front of this oven, which had no coal left in it, I lost my courage and let
shuddering sobs wrack my body. To escape from the cold, I inserted my poor feet into the entrance of the
extinguished oven. And I prayed to God:
- ‘Lord, you cannot leave us! We are in such need. Everyone is ill. What will happen to us? I don’t know
what to do, I am so small, but you, Lord, please do something for us; make a miracle! I beg of you, make a
miracle!’
And then I understood that prayer brings relief. Papa found me sleeping: I had fallen asleep of cold and
fatigue, my head drooping on the bench. But I became calmer. I believed that Mama would return soon. And
that a difficult part in our lives, as Papa said, was coming to an end. No one impressed this belief on me, I did
not pick it up from anyone. I found it myself, on that dark Christmas night.

And now in Easter Mama returned, with two bundles in her arms!
- ‘Congratulations! Twins!’ grumbled Grandmama, to whom sarcasm had returned with health. ‘And that
idiot doctor didn’t see anything!’
- ‘He’s not at all an idiot!’ Mama disagreed. ‘He doesn’t take any money from us.’
Papa was satisfied. Finally some boys!
- ‘Now you have seven of them, that’s a good number, it brings luck,’ declared Grandmama, looking at
my father. ‘Isn’t that enough? I hope you’ll stop at this!’
My poor Grandmama... she could not even imagine that just as many more children would appear in our
family!
Life went on. With the arrival of spring things eased a little. But nothing changed at school: there, as
before, I was awaited by the sour expression on the teacher’s face and a desk in the last row. I was not alone
there, there were other girls from large families around me. I was always late for the first lesson, because as
the eldest I had early chores: go to get milk, wake up the little ones, clothe and wash them, wash myself -
Mama had enough to do with the babies. Before school I took the little ones to kindergarten, and it was
situated away from my school.
Moving from class to class, I continued to sit at the last desk as before. And gradually I began to think that
for poor people school was one thing, and for the rich - another; the former didn’t learn things well because at
home there was no one to help them, and the latter did better because their families helped them prepare their
homework, as well as because they received more attention from the teachers.
After the birth of the twins we now slept seven people on one big bed. The three eldest Mama settled in
near the top, and the four younger ones - at the bottom, across the bed.

The quarter Malpeignes

I had not yet turned eight years old when the eighth child appeared in our family.
- ‘Let’s call him Roger, after you,’ Doctor Monoret told my father. ‘And I will be his godfather!’
The kind doctor had grown very attached to our family. Visiting his godson, he paid attention to us all.
When Mama recovered after giving birth, she decided to go to the town hall, where she was remembered
as a model worker.
- ‘We can’t live like rabbits in a small cage any more!’ she would say indignantly. ‘Imagine: eight
children and only two small rooms!’
- ‘We know this very well, Madame Mathieu, but… ’
There was always a ‘but’. And post-war problems also reared their heads…
- ‘Building new flats is not an easy task in these times. But we can promise you one thing, Madame
Mathieu, you will be moved first… ’
And we waited, though every week Mama grumbled:
- ‘Today I’m definitely going to go annoy the mayor again… ’
Family Mathieu (about 1956)
Finally one beautiful day she returned home beaming:
- ‘Everything’s all right! We’ve got it! That is, we’ll soon have it! A home in a new block!’
- ‘That’s not possible!’
- ‘Yes it is! The mayor promised me, and I saw with my own eyes: we’re first on the list.’
It is hard to describe what feelings filled us at the two words ‘new block’. We were elated, anticipating the
end of our troubles.
- ‘We’ll have four rooms! What luxury!’
Those four rooms already stood before our eyes: their own room for the elder children, their own – for the
younger, the parents’ room, the dining room…
- ‘And in addition to everything there’s plumbing!’
Water in the house! What a wonder! Water flowing at your command! All you have to do is turn on the
tap – and there it is, running on your fingers!
- ‘Where will the toilet be, Mama?’
- ‘Also in the house!’
And so, goodbye to the garden of Monsieur Foli, which we had to run through, clutching at the stomach!
This important event took place in November, when little Roger was seven months old. Packing up didn’t
take long. Our parents didn’t have many belongings. But they had eight children!
And now the last ‘journey’: we were loaded onto a cart with the remaining boxes and our only real
treasure – a record player (or electrophone) and LP’s with the recordings of Piaf, Tino Rossi and opera arias.
When we drove onto the stone road of Malpeignes, this ‘new block’ came before our eyes, and Mama
immediately observed:
- ‘There was an urgent need to build these houses, which is why they were raised so quickly… ’
Papa explained that they used large panels, out of which the house is swiftly assembled. And now
appeared a grey row of houses, somehow flattened – totally identical, squat-looking buildings, as though they
had been stuck to each other. They seemed to me almost hostile, perhaps because there were no sounds at all
to be heard.
- ‘Other families with many children will move in later,’ explained Mama. ‘We are the first tenants. We’ll
move into the one on the edge. Behind it we’ll be able to see the fields.’
Ah! Then, in the back there’ll be fields? I immediately brightened. And for a moment forgot that in front
of us there was dug-up earth.
- ‘They will probably put concrete over in soon… ’
I especially liked that at the entrance of each house there were three low steps. My sisters and I jumped up
them with both feet together, and immediately went round all four rooms.
- ‘Look, everywhere there are real windows, not little shuttered squares!’ admired Mama.
Then everyone rushed to the sink: the tap worked!
- ‘Yes, it works! But here you’re not allowed to play with the water.’
The water running from the tap was holy. There was no question that we couldn’t splash about with it like
we did in front of the pump at our previous house. Here, in the quarter Malpeignes, there was no water-pump
in the yard. But then, there was no yard either, there was only empty ground.
On the other hand, soon there was rather too much water…
The extent of the catastrophe became clear on the first day. The whole family had gathered to see how
we’d settled in. And then it started to rain.
At first this was not given due attention. When we returned from school, it seemed as though the house
stood on a lake. We found this very entertaining. But the adults didn’t think so. Notwithstanding the three
steps, the water entered the house from everywhere. And everyone bailed water as if from a leaky boat.
- ‘Everything because they still haven’t laid down the concrete!’ grumbled Papa.
The water flooded in mercilessly, flowed over the threshold, seeped through badly-fitted window frames,
searched and found various cracks. It had already reached ankle-depth. Everyone took their shoes off.
- ‘Come on, children, climb higher. Slapping on the water, you’ll all catch cold.’
Yes, the beginning was ordinary, but the continuation wasn’t much better. Two or three families had
already moved in next to us. Mama said of them: ‘Well, these aren’t a present.’ They were just as poor as we,
but very badly brought up. Therefore swearing and yelling hung in the air…
At school there immediately appeared a difference between the children from Malpeignes and everyone
else. And amongst the pupils from Malpeignes the most good-for-nothing were those sitting on the bottom
desks. My desk neighbour was also called Mireille. But although we were called the same, we lived very
differently: her father beat her nearly every night. He constantly returned home drunk. Her screams hurt my
heart. In the morning she, like me, was late for school – she also had to look after all her small brothers. The
poor things was so afraid of getting bad marks, for which she was beaten even more, that she was often afraid
to return home. On such days I accompanied her home, also trembling from fear.
- ‘Well, what does your mother say?’
- ‘She keeps quiet, or he’ll hit her too.’
Mireille was often amazed:
- ‘Does your father really never hit you?’
- ‘Never.’
- ‘Well, then you are very lucky.’
So, thanks to little Mireille, I understood that I really was lucky. At home we all sat to eat together, Papa
on one end and Mama on the other. But Mama often didn’t sit, either because she wanted that we children eat
better (even if we had only potatoes in the house, Mama managed to cook different dishes from it so that there
was some kind of variety) or because she had to feed or change yet another baby.
The walls of our houses, stuck together, didn’t so much stop sounds as conduct them, so everyone knew
what was happening at the neighbours’. Now in the Malpeignes block there was not a single uninhabited
house left. And who didn’t live here!
There were among the inhabitants of the block gypsies, good people who loved music. And I loved to
listen to them. I didn’t understand the words, of course, but there was always and old gypsy woman who
would tell me the content of the songs:
- ‘He is singing that those who love to dance live like free birds’… ’ or: ‘"Tears like large beans are
flowing down his cheeks because his beloved’s left him"’… or: ‘"Your eyes have captured my heart, and the
lashes behind which they hide remind me of luscious grass"’…
We sang often. And this allowed us not to take notice of the drunk opposite, who broke glass when
enraged. But he cried three days in a row when his son was taken to the hospital after he had beaten him.
Not a week went by without a scandal or a fight, when it was necessary to call the police. So quite soon
the Malpeignes quarter received the nickname ‘Chicago’.

The fields were a real refuge for the mothers from our quarter. They sent us to play there and in those
hours were calm. For us, these ‘endless’ fields seemed paradise. Once I, who Mama thought was so shy,
climbed a tree, but couldn’t climb down again; my head began to spin. Christiane went for help.
- ‘Mireille is up a tree?’
- ‘Yes! On the very top!’
- ‘Such a timid thing as she! You’re wrong if you think I’ll move from here.’ Mama believed what
happened only when Youki came running and pulled at her dress, barking. Youki was the name of our dog.
More accurately, he was a stray. He had followed Matite when we were returning from school. And so we
came home, and right behind us came a dog.
- ‘I hope you don’t want us to feed a dog as well?! We don’t have enough meat for ourselves!’
- ‘He’ll eat whatever we give him. Look how hungry he is, the poor thing.’
And then it began to rain. Mama, of course, didn’t have the heart to throw the dog out.
- ‘We’ll wait for Papa to come home, and then see… ’
The happy Matite winked at me.
But Papa was angry:
- ‘What dog!’
- ‘You were regretting yourself that Grandpapa has no one to go hunting with since he lost Pelette!’ cried
Matite. ‘I’m sure that Youki has a good nose.’
- ‘How do you know his name’s Youki and he has a good nose?’
- ‘I called him Youki, because the name suits him, and he definitely has a good nose. And here’s the best
proof: he followed us, while he could have followed little Mireille (my desk partner, whom her father beat),
there he would have received plenty of kicks!’
- ‘But wait! The dog must belong to someone. And his little master’s probably crying now, because he’s
lost… so tomorrow I’ll go to the police and say we’ve found him… ’
That was an unforgettable night: Youki slept exactly in the middle between Matite and me. We were very
warm and comfortable. And on the next day we awaited Papa’s return with impatience. It turned out that no
one in our quarter had lost a dog. But he could have come from further off…
- ‘Leave him with you for the moment, Monsieur Mathieu,’ he was told at the police station. ‘And if no
one misses him after a year and a day, we’ll do as we would with a wallet or jewellery: the dog will remain
with you!’
Papa returned, leading Youki on a leash. The dog was obviously happy: he already considered our home
as his. Soon I noticed that Papa had slightly changed his phrase about having many children.
- ‘Oh well,’ he would now say cheerfully. ‘Why would I get fat now if I have ten children and a dog to
feed!’
The thing was that after five girls, there appeared in our family five boys: the twins, Roger, and Rémi and
Jean-Pierre, born after the move to Malpeignes. Equality had been asserted.
Papa decided to test Youki’s behaviour on the hunt. He took us girls with him, as the boys were still too
young. On the first day Youki acted crazy, it seemed as though he had never hunted before. He behaved like a
city dog on a country road, or an escaped school-boy, who has just found himself on a plain and is breathing
in the intoxicating scent of flowers.
To tell the truth, I didn’t like hunting at all. The sound of gun shots scared me, and I couldn’t eat game,
shot in front of me. I only confused our Youki…
But he made progress. One day Papa triumphantly declared, ‘this dog is probably better than Pelette!’
This is why we awaited the passing of a year and a day with some alarm. Papa and Youki went to the police.
Agitated, we waited for them to return. Finally on the road leading to our quarter, two silhouettes appeared:
Youki ran in front and by habit pulled his master behind him. From now on the dog belonged to us. We
hugged him like a hero.

We loved accompanying our father to his workshop. He sat us in the cart, put his tools next to us and soon
we would appear by the cemetery wall.
The cemetery of Saint Veran is one of the remarkable sights of Avignon. If there weren’t any graves, it
would resemble a pleasant park, where one can take a walk. Of the old monastery there was nothing left
except an apse.
Papa taught us to use a brush to whiten stone. It was our favourite activity. We whitened stone so often
that we grew quite skilled with a brush. And Papa decided to buy paint for our room.
- ‘What colour would you prefer, girls?’
Matite, Christiane and I unanimously chose pink. Papa brought home three cans of pink paint and big
painting brushes.
- ‘Let them do something useful,’ he said to our mother. ‘And let you get some rest from them on Sunday,
too!’
The great hour came. Papa moved the wardrobe from the wall and left us to it.
- ‘Do it yourselves, girls. You already know how to use paintbrushes, so forward march!’
The bed and the chairs were covered with newspapers, Mama put old aprons on each of us. When after a
little while she risked looking in, she was horrified:
- ‘My God, everything’s covered with paint!’
- ‘That’s good. They were supposed to paint everything.’
- ‘Yes, they were supposed to paint the walls. But not themselves!’
Having dirtied ourselves, we resembled multicoloured lollipops. We had lots of fun and sang ‘The Three
Bells’ as loudly as possible.
It has to be said that Piaf was like a member of the family. I can’t describe what I felt when I heard her
voice on the radio for the first time - or perhaps I can. She herself tells of such a feeling in her song
‘L’Accordéoniste’ (‘The Accordion Player’): ‘ Ça lui rentre dans la peau, par le bas, par le haut, elle a envie
de chanter, c’est physique… ’ (‘This entered all his skin, from bottom to top, it was a physical longing to
sing... ’).
At school I was notorious for being unable to remember anything, but all the songs of Edith Piaf I
remembered at once, without trying. Thanks to our ""’phone"" (Mama never said "‘electrophone"’), which
was far from perfect, I delightedly repeated everything I heard on the records, like a parrot.

Once my father triumphantly brings home the cart, with a large box in it.
- ‘Mama! Come look at the surprise!’
- ‘What is it? What a huge box!’
- ‘You, my dear wife, have no time to go to the movies. So I brought them to you!’
It was a television set.
We all gathered around it, like around a golden calf.
- ‘How did you manage to buy it, Roger?’
- ‘On credit. Are you glad?’
- ‘More like worried. How will we manage to pay for it?’
- ‘I told you – little by little. Do you know what the salesman told me: ‘You are the eighteenth person in
Avignon who has a television!’ Did you know that? We could say we’re among the first!’
We were the very first in our quarter, anyway. All the neighbours watched TV at our house. They posed
many questions we were unable to answer. For example, they asked:
- ‘How is it that we can see a person in Paris from here?’
- ‘You just plug the fork in the socket, the set begins to work, and that’s it,’ Mama explained.
But it sometimes happened that the fork was plugged in, and the TV didn’t work.
- ‘That’s because the cables downstairs are flooded with water,’ explained the repairman. ‘And the
electricity shorts out.’
In that sense nothing had changed: water still entered the house as before. The concrete still hadn’t been
put down, and when it rained hard in the rainy season, you could float to the house on a boat!
To pay for the TV we had to tighten our belts. But everyone was happy. It was a real miracle: now in front
of us there appeared pictures of what was happening in different corners of the world.
Whether our TV worked or not, curious people always visited us. We had never had so many friends; not
mentioning those who had become dear to us through the little screen. Catherine Langeais and Jacqueline
Caurat were closer and dearer to me than my school teacher. I even saw Edith Piaf, once – only once. I had
not even imagined that she was so pale, so fragile, so worn out…
- ‘What a kind person he is, your husband!’ said Mme Vergier, our old neighbour from our previous
house, who had come specially to ‘watch home movies’. ‘He invites over anyone who wants to watch… ’
That was very true. Even we children invited our friends on Thursdays. We lived no more lavishly than
before, but we felt like princes with the TV.
The television changed many things in our lives. Now the harshest punishment was being forbidden to
watch TV shows. In one thing Papa was relentless: at eight o’clock the children must be in bed! Therefore we
watched mainly weekend shows. And it occurred to none of us that on one fine day, which was still so far off,
a certain Mireille Mathieu would be born on just one such show…

The "brood" of little Mathieus


But at the moment I was just little Mimi, no different from my brothers and sisters.
Mama always dressed us in the same clothes.
- ‘I don’t want you to look like the children of the poor, dressed in the old clothes the rich give you out of
the ‘goodness’ of their hearts!’
She dealt with the situation by going to shops such as Nouvelle Galerie and Chaussures André, where
they recognised her as a mother with numerous children. They sold her low-priced goods, and sometimes
gave her a discount. And we didn’t look bad at all in identical children’s coats and identical little boots, all of
the one colour.
Our parents were proud that we were always so well-dressed, and Papa was proud also of the fact that he
was the father of ten children.
Only one dress was passed down year after year from one sister to the next: the first confirmation dress.
Of course, by my right as eldest, I wore it first. Mama had acquired it on credit from Nouvelle Galerie. This
ceremonial dress seemed to me wondrous…
Drawing on white petticoats and putting on the white hood, I felt like I was entering a world of wonders,
and I zealously readied myself for the solemn event.
Communion

Three days before taking communion was a ‘day of rest’. In the morning, taking breakfast with us, we
would go on a picnic, and on the eve of the confirmation, in the evening, a ceremonial procession took place.
Something similar occurred on Easter Sunday as well, when we walked, holding olive branches; but before
confirmation everything looked much more impressive, because we marched in the dark with lighted wax
candles in our hands.
And on the day of the first confirmation it was so nice to visit relatives and friends in a snow-white dress,
giving religious pictures. In return we received a coin – alms for the poor. This was the tradition.
First confirmation was a no less important and festive occasion than marriage – the whole family attended
the ceremony. In the church everyone sang together, and Papa’s beautiful tenor stood out in the choir. In these
moments all pain and troubles were forgotten.
If I was asked which day in my childhood was the sweetest, I would name this one. Even our previous
neighbours took part in the celebration. And Papa, as though doing something holy, hung a small rosary on
my wrist.
I never parted with it.
The next year, on the 10th of May, I helped Matite don the snow-white dress. Her turn had come… we
prepared for this day with the same happiness, the same diligence, the same excitement. Jean-Pierre’s baptism
was on the same day – it was to be a double celebration.
In the morning we went to church, leaving the baby, who had just turned four months old, under the care
of my great-aunt Julie, the sister of our grandfather. We were still praying in the chapel when an alarmed
neighbour ran in… the praying was disturbed, Mama left church in a hurry, Papa followed her, leaving the
priest totally confused… Jean-Pierre was unconscious, the rumour went down the rows of prayers, completely
quashing the service.
The ill-fated Julie had never had children, and she decided, after feeding the infant, to give him a bath.
And she suddenly found that she was holding his breathless body, his eyes glassy and expressionless… the
poor toddler was immediately sent to the hospital. My parents, distraught with grief, spent the whole day
there. The baby didn’t return to consciousness.
Poor Matite, what a confirmation she had. No one even touched the feast prepared. Naturally, there was
no christening nor any vespers.
I firmly refused to leave the church. Left alone, I prayed and prayed, my face awash with tears. And Jean-
Pierre was saved. But my sister Matite didn’t experience the bliss I had last year.
My little brothers were constantly the cause of much worry. Not because they were fidgets and
troublemakers, on the contrary, they were among the most obedient boys in our quarter. But their health was
not as good as ours. Or perhaps, they were less lucky. Guy, one of the twins, was continuously tormented by
otitis from three years of age. It was so pitiful to see how he suffered, pressing his pillow to his ear. And we
heard again and again the terrifying words:
- ‘Let us hope it doesn’t develop.’
That is what happened, and Guy became deaf for a long time. Only later, much later – before his wedding
in 1978 – he managed to have an operation.
And how much dread and fear did I go through because of Rémi! He was then three years old. He looked
like a blonde angel, even when he slept… it was Regis who raised the alarm:
- ‘Mama, Papa, come here quick, Rémi is suffocating!’
The toddler had convulsions, but at first this didn’t disturb Mama:
- ‘Almost all little children get convulsions!’
But relief didn’t come. Rémi’s convulsions didn’t stop, which horrified me and my sisters, and in addition
to everything the little boy had a high temperature.
At first Papa thought that the problem was biscuits, of which Rémi had had too many… this was probably
why such continuous convulsions had begun. But suddenly, realising that the temperature wasn’t falling and
that Rémi’s eyes were rolling back in his head, Papa cried:
- ‘I’ll go get Doctor Monoret!’
And left, although night had fallen. We sat around Mama, trembling with fear.
- ‘I’m afraid he’s going… ’ whispered Mama, wiping the toddler’s damp forehead.
Rémi’s body was slowly stiffening up, and this made us fear the worst.
Papa wasn’t returning, he didn’t come back for a long time. He searched everywhere for the doctor… but
our doctor Monoret was very handsome and very popular with the ladies… the anxious Papa spent half the
night with Mama at Rémi’s bedside. And at dawn went to another doctor. Having barely glanced at the
patient, he declared at once:
- ‘To the hospital, immediately! And you children aren’t going to school!’
- ‘We’re not going? Why not?’
- ‘Because the disease is contagious!’
I asked, was it more dangerous than mumps?
- ‘Much more dangerous!’
In my time I was very afraid of mumps, because everyone’s glands swelled up enormously. First the
twins’ gums began to hurt, then they began to complain that everything in their mouths was burning, and in
the end they couldn’t eat or speak… we waited, what would descend upon us now? People. Some strange
people with large atomisers, ‘to disinfect the house’. And they sprayed not only all the furniture and clothes,
but us as well. The acrid, nauseating smell followed us for several days.
- ‘You don’t want to infect everyone in the quarter with meningitis of the spinal cord, do you?’
We couldn’t even visit Rémi in the hospital. And we missed him so much… Mama explained that even
she could see him only through a window… meanwhile her legs began to seep blood again.
- ‘Soon the eleventh will come into the world!’ She told the neighbours.
Mama went to the hospital just before Christmas.
- ‘My poor little children… you’re left alone again, to look after the whole house! Take care of Papa and
Jean-Pierre.’
That toddler was only a year old, and I was twelve…

One February morning Papa declared:


- ‘My dear children… you have another sister, Sophie-Simone! Quickly get ready and we’ll go to the
hospital!’
But on that day this successive wrapped-up baby didn’t interest me much. All my thoughts were on Rémi:
he lay in another wing of the hospital, and could only be seen through a window. Everything in me was
indignant. What unfairness! Our poor little angel…
Mama tried to calm me down:
- ‘My dear Mimi… families with many children never go without crises. They are in much more danger,
but you know yourself that in such families there are also many causes for joy… ’
And an unexpected joy awaited me at school. I moved to another class, and to another teacher – Mme
Julien.
This cheerful woman immediately made you like her, she never used the ruler and when she talked she
waved her arms as though they were wings. Her forehead was dotted with small freckles, and her already grey
hair she put into a bun at the nape of her neck, crowning it with a splendid chignon. Her chignon intrigued
me: she must spend so much time on it each morning! Of course, unlike me she didn’t have to bring home
five large loaves of bread and two jugs of milk for my little brothers and sisters each morning before school!
But she understood perfectly why I was late for class and stammered when trying to pronounce a word.
- ‘I know of your problems, Mireille. Your mother told me that you are having trouble with division. Do
you even know what it is?’
- ‘No.’
- ‘That’s not true, you do! Now look… you bring home two dozen apples… that means there are twenty-
four. The saleswoman is kind, and instead of each dozen she gives you thirteen, so there are now twenty-six
apples. Isn’t that right? You have eleven children at home, add to that your mother, that’s twelve, and with
your father – thirteen. And now divide the apples. Each will receive two. See, you have now divided
correctly!’
What a victory! After that the bothersome word ‘divide’, which had made my blood go cold in my veins,
didn’t scare me any more.
Mme Julien removed me from the last row, where I thought I was destined to be forever.
- ‘Sit down here, in the front… yes, here… at the first desk. And when we’ll be doing arithmetic, you’ll
go to the board.’
To sit at the first desk! Like a good student! I felt myself coming back to life. From then on I started to
enjoy numbers, adding and dividing…
Another happiness awaited me. Mme Julien knew that the houses in the quarter of Malpeignes had a tap
only over the kitchen sink. And on one lovely morning she told us:
- ‘Listen, children… those of you who have no showers at home may use the one at school.’
The school shower, located behind the door that was always locked? And they would open it for us, the
students from Malpeignes? This was simply unbelievable! All kinds of wild rumours circulated about that
door. Matite was convinced that Bluebeard kept his wives behind it. And now by the wish of Mme Julien, that
fairy godmother, the door was suddenly opened and everything made clear.
Our first shower was a sort of revelation, we could stand under the stream of water however long we
liked. We felt renewed, strong, healthy, happy! For the rest of my life I have kept the memory of the pleasure
I had then, and even now I still prefer a warm shower – caressing, invigorating, lifting fatigue - to marble
baths with gilded taps. Of course, it was almost funny to compare the school’s shower to the watering can
from which Papa poured water on us on warm days! Unlike it, the shower worked at any time of the year!
Now I felt completely different about school, and was less and less often late for class.
Mme Julien had a daughter called Fanchon. She was much older than I… by at least four years. She had
an enviable job: she danced in the Avignon Opera. And she often organised matinees at school. Tall, slender,
with surprisingly slim legs (no wonder she was a ballet dancer!), she always came in elegant shoes, which
delighted me.
- ‘Do you like my shoes?’ She asked me once, shaking out her voluptuous hair.
- ‘Oh yes!’ I cried involuntarily.
They were a bright red colour… the next day Fanchon came in different shoes and gave me a package.
My dream shoes lay in it.
- ‘Take these shoes, I am giving them to you as a gift.’
Alas, a disappointment awaited me. The tall Fanchon didn’t have small feet, and I always wore size 33
shoes. What a letdown… the shoes were so wonderful!
A way out was found, however – I filled them with newspaper, which I kept to clean windows. So I
managed to wear them, but I never achieved an elegant walk.
Fanchon, who still felt kindly towards me, always insisted that I participate in school festivals at which
she danced: in my opinion, she danced magnificently, although I had no one to compare her with. When she
performed ‘The Dying Swan’, tears always filled my eyes… I had become accustomed to singing publicly
from early childhood, from the day I sang ‘Ma poupée cherie’, but Fanchon wanted me to perform with
completely different songs, and I didn’t like that.
- ‘What is it, Mireille? Don’t you want to sing?’
- ‘I can’t. My throat hurts.’
I lied shamelessly.
- ‘That Mireille is simply unmanageable,’ complained Fanchon to her mother. ‘She is stubborn and lazy.’
This description wasn’t flattering, although it was fair in most things… but not all. Yes, I could seem
stubborn when I did what I enjoyed, and lazy when I didn’t want to do that which I disliked. And since then I
haven’t changed one bit!
I didn’t like the repertoire that Fanchon gave me, and I liked the songs of Piaf and Maria Candido more
and more each day. But songs about passionate love were decisively rejected by Fanchon, who commented:
‘Piaf is not for little girls’. She had strict pedagogical principles. In fact, she later became a teacher.
The conflict between us was never resolved. My faithful allies were my two friends – Marie-Jo and
Roseline.
- ‘You imitate them ‘to life’,’ they assured me. And unperturbed, I continued to sing ‘Mon legionnaire’.
Roseline, poor Roseline at first had a perfect childhood. She lived with her mother, who never refused her
daughter anything; this was probably because her father didn’t live with them, and her mother tried to make it
so that the little girl didn’t feel his absence. She was a seamstress, and sewed her daughter dresses that were
so beautiful we could only dream about them. When Roseline invited me over, their table brought to mind a
confectioner’s rich front window! My friend was always elegantly dressed, so that once I couldn’t stop myself
from exclaiming: ‘You have such a lovely blouse!’
It was trimmed with lace, and the sleeves had frills. Roseline’s mother said to me kindly:
- ‘Well, since you like the blouse, I’ll make you one too!’
I almost bit my tongue. I had been put in a terrible situation: how could I own a thing which my sisters
didn’t have? It went against the unbreakable rule which Mama had set down: ‘In the Mathieu family everyone
must dress the same!’
But it was Mama herself who put an end to my doubts:
- ‘My dear Mireille, you are growing up. I hope that you’ll soon receive your school certificate. Then
you’ll be considered an adult and you can dress any way you like.’
The beautiful rose blouse went into the closet, where it stayed for a year. Roseline never saw me in it.
After the sudden death of her mother her life changed completely. The death was a big shock for my friend.
She was utterly lost and couldn’t understand what had happened. Her grandmother, whom she barely knew,
came and took the girl away with her. And then I thought that it wasn’t after all so good to be the only child in
your family. I may not have beautiful dresses like Roseline, but I had other things: love and family warmth –
the deep, strong feeling which had forever joined our parents, and also bound us children to them and to each
other. All this I felt every day, especially on Sundays, and kept in my heart like a priceless treasure.
We gathered together every Sunday.
This day began with Mass. In the church we sang, Papa and I performed solo, and family and friends were
the choir.
We, the Mathieu family, sang together also when we went for a walk to the Doms cliff. But in this case
our repertoire consisted of fun, lively songs. We children ran and skipped in front, went ahead, returned, and
everything ended with the little ones racing: each wanted to be first to the top, to the foot of a huge oak tree.
Our parents came slowly, not tiring of admiring the lovely scenery which opened to us from the cliff:
below we could see the city and – most importantly – the Rhone.
There was another reason why we liked the Doms cliff so much. Grandpapa took part in restoring the
ladder of St. Anne, which led to the cathedral. He had even helped to re-plan the old gardens.
Returning home from the walk to the Doms cliff we paused each time at the square before the Little
Palace, whose window frames of stone had needed to be repaired for a while… it was at this square that the
Avignon Festival was held in the summer. But it didn’t interest the locals much. Only Parisians and tourists
came to it… all those whom Papa contemptuously called ‘those dirty people who write on walls’; here he
warned us: ‘Take care I don’t see you dare to write on stone too!’ The mere thought of it made him shudder…

Only later, much later, did I find out that the young god of theatre lived in our city. I mean Gerard Philipe.
I have never seen him myself; I was only five years old when he made his debut in Cornel’s tragedy ‘Le Cid’,
and when he played his last role I was barely twelve. But I remember well how the older schoolgirls walked
around during breaktimes with photographs of him in different film roles. I often stared at these photos, which
showed the incredible glitter of his eyes, and dreamed. A long time afterwards, in Paris, I saw this wizard of
the screen act in films such as ‘La Chartreuse de Parme’, ‘Le Diable au corps’, ‘Fanfan la Tulipe’… and
when I now sing:

Il était un prince en Avignon


Sans royaume, sans chateau, ni donjon,
Là-bas tout au fond de la province
Il était un prince
Et l’enfant que j’étais
Cueillait pour lui bien des roses…
En ce temps le bonheur était peu de chose…

… the name of Gerard Philipe isn’t mentioned in the song, but the public knows well whom it is about.
The applause erupts, they show their love for him; a love which I feel too, although we never met: I was born
too late.
Too late also to meet Edith Piaf. I only managed to see her in Blistene’s film ‘Etoile sans lumière’ (and I
was astonished to see how naturally she acted in it), and in the film by Sacha Guitry ‘Si Versailles m’était
conté’ she sang ‘Ah! ça ira, ça ira’ – sang so well that it moved you deeply; I also saw her in ‘French
Cancan’ by Jean Renoir, in which she played Eugenie Buffet, the diva of the beginning of the XX century.
I think that the cinematographers could have asked Edith Piaf to act more often. She was a born actress –
comic as well as tragic – no less than she was a born singer. However, without doubt, she was chained ‘with
an iron chain’ to the stage and passionately loved to sing: without songs she simply wouldn’t be able to live!
Others were able to control this passion, and therefore became famous actors: I mean Montand, Bourvil,
Raimu, Fernandel…
Fernandel! He was to us the most beloved of the renowned cinema artists, for which Mme Julien was
largely responsible. She had the idea of holding film sessions under the open sky during warm summer
afternoons. What gladness there was! We delightedly watched ‘Angele’, ‘Regain’, ‘Le Schpountz’,
‘Topaze’… nothing but films by Marcel Pagnol.
- ‘This is what I call truly our films!’ Exclaimed Mme Julien, who couldn’t stand American movies.
We really did enjoy Pagnol’s films. In them appeared our South, we heard our language, recognised
traditions and habits familiar to us… then came the turn of ‘Marius’, ‘Fanny’, ‘Cesar’, and having seen this
last film, I suddenly discovered that my father was… the embodiment of Raimu!
After Mme Julien had showed us ‘Manon des Sources’ with Jacqueline Pagnol (who made me daydream
for a long time), she announced that we would now see ‘Les Lettres de mon moulin’. This picture was such a
success with us that we watched it twice. Seeking to combine the pleasant with the useful, our favourite
teacher convinced us to not only read those novels by Daudet on which the movies were based, but also all the
other ones, including ‘Les Trois Messes basses’, ‘L’Elixir du père Gaucher’ and ‘Le Secret de maître
Cornille’. I memorised them almost by heart. And tasted them, as though they were a delicacy. In those times
that was all my literary baggage – a little Pagnol and a little Daudet.
- ‘She knows so little, my dear daughter,’ complained Mama. ‘Sometimes I worry whether she’ll receive
her school certificate.’
I realised that the hour of reckoning was near, but I convinced myself that I still had time… that I would
catch up when the school year began. After all, the summer holidays are the most wonderful. And the best
festival of all approached, the 14th of July.
And after that was the summer camp. We went there thanks to the Office of Family Benefit. It all began
on that memorable day when the town hall recognised and gave awards to mothers with many children.
It was an unforgettable ceremony: Mama received a very beautiful certificate (at home we hung it up on
the wall, where it is to this day), and a medal. We children were more interested in the free lunch held after
the ceremony, and then the show with clowns. Mama was in her turn interested in other things, namely, the
presents she received: linen and a small sum of money. In a word, the celebration was very successful.
And a few days after that we set out for the summer camp called ‘Dragonfly’. It wasn’t situated far away,
just on the other side of the Rhone. The place chosen for the camp was excellent, and its name suited it
perfectly: it abounded in dragonflies… they were innumerable. The day went by imperceptibly… Mama and
Papa took us home in the evening, and in the morning everything began again: at seven a.m. Mama put us on
the bus at the square of St. Lazare (it was quite distant from our house). The day began with a light breakfast,
then we took a walk, had lunch, rested, had tea, played. In those years there were no buildings nearby, we
really lived at one with nature among dense acacias and pines. The instructor helped us make sketch shows
and one-act plays. I always played the role of Cinderella. It was my favourite fairytale. It seemed as though
this role was made especially for me. I didn’t forget about it for a minute, and clearly imagined to myself how
I turned from a dirty serving maid into a princess. This role never tired me. I diligently scratched at the earth,
while my sisters and friends laughed at me, playing the roles of Cinderella’s mean stepsisters… at the end of
the play I proudly strutted about, as (in my mind) a princess should, dressed in a ‘magnificent’ dress made
from leaves, held together with pine needles. And thus it continued without any changes. The fairytale turned
into a ritual, it became part of our lives, so that everyone came to call me Cinderella.
On one lovely day Mama came with amazing news:
- ‘Children, you will soon see the sea!’
Up to this point we had only seen the sea on photographs, in the cinema or on the TV screen. Then Mama
would remember that her childhood years had passed in Dunkirk. She confessed that she had always missed
the sea. And now we were going to Marseilles…
- ‘You have been extremely lucky,’ Mama said to us. ‘Everything’s because we’re a big family. This is
why we were allowed to take up the country house in Carry-le-Rouet.’
And all this thanks to the Office of Family Benefit. My sisters were delighted, Mama was also happy:
- ‘Just look how beautiful it is here!’
You couldn’t argue with that. A road, framed by pine trees, led to the beach. As usual, we held hands
going down it, so as not to get lost; thus we arrived at the fish docks.
- ‘Here you’ll eat plenty of fish,’ said Mama. ‘That is very good for the bones… and you’ll learn to
swim!’
But in reality everything turned out otherwise. I even lost my appetite. And, as they say, wilted
completely. I was tormented by a deadly homesickness. This was our first long parting. Without Mama and
Papa the world seemed empty to me. The sea didn’t replace family! It scared me. At the sight of this
shoreless, agitated, rumbling, changeable, bottomless element I began to feel ill… and no force could make
me even enter the water.
I still haven’t learnt to swim. All I dare do is have a dip right by the shore… of course, I sometimes have
to make sea voyages and I don’t feel myself each time I do.
The instructor in Carry-le-Rouet must have the worst memories of the little Mathieus. Looking up to me
as the eldest, my sisters also shed floods of tears. After two weeks our parents decided to visit us. At their
appearance me and my sisters burst into tears. Trying to calm us, our parents set out on a walk on the road to
the port with us. We reached a beautiful villa.
- ‘Look,’ Mama told me. ‘Here lives Fernandel… ’
‘Our’ Fernandel, the shared favourite of the whole family. But not then, nor on the way back, did we
manage to see Fernandel: he wouldn’t show himself, as if on purpose! We burst into tears again and cried
right until the departure of our parents. In a word, our month of rest in Carry-le-Rouet turned out to be a
torment: our tears poured and poured, like a waterfall.
- ‘It looks like the level of the sea has risen because of you,’ commented Mama.
We gladly returned to our fields.
At school Mme Julien awaited me: in this year I was to receive my school leaver’s certificate.
I so wanted to achieve it… firstly because of her: she had helped me so much, she had spent so much time
with me, I couldn’t fail her! But Lord, it was such a hard task! Having spent several years at the back of the
class, I had a most stopped listening to the teacher’s explanations. I understood very well that I didn’t really
know anything. I remembered something about Napoleon, because I had come to like this little man… a little
more – about Jeanne d’Arc, I liked her, and I generally adored saints. But these heights of French history rose
sadly above the ‘ravine’ of my ignorance, where you could dimly see – thanks to the pictures in the textbooks
– some ‘city on the water’ or an ‘American Indians’ wigwam’.
With despair I tried to make up for lost time, but that is impossible, as is well known. Daily I sat, my nose
buried in books, mercilessly testing my memory. I even stopped singing.
Things were hard, very hard! In the evenings I sat up late, and Papa hated that: he demanded that the
lights were turned off at eight o’clock.
- ‘But listen, Roger, she is preparing for the school exams!’
Everyone in the house spoke about it. I lost sleep, although until then I had slept like a log. From time to
time Grandmama would say indignantly:
- ‘You’ll turn her into an idiot! Why does our girl need this certificate? Will it help her have beautiful and
healthy children?’
- ‘If I didn’t have my school certificate,’ disagreed Mama, ‘I would never have been taken to work in the
town hall.’
- ‘That wasn’t what saved you, it was God! You know the saying: God helps children, the blessed and the
drunk. So our girl is under his protection! She’ll receive your wonderful certificate!’
Alas, I didn’t receive it. I still remember in what confusion I looked at the blank sheet of paper in front of
me. The question was about the Capetiens… I always confused one with the other. And they hadn’t even
thought to ask about Jeanne d’Arc or Napoleon… Papa comforted me how he could:
- ‘Mimi, I think it is much more useful to mention the names of Jeanne d’Arc or Napoleon in conversation
than some Capetiens!’
Mme Julien saw it differently. In a strict tone she told me that I had disappointed her very much. I had to
stay back another year in the same class: taking into account my age (fourteen years!), it was my last chance.
This time I left for the holidays laden with books. There could not even be any talk of a trip to Carry-le-
Rouet…
We again found ourselves in the summer camp ‘Dragonfly’ in Villeneuve-les-Avignon. It was there that I
met the fortune-teller.
She lived near the graveyard. One of our friends had overheard how her mother, a great believer in
horoscopes, spoke about this woman. Many of us had bicycles, and so a large group of us went to the oracle,
some sitting in the seats and some in the baskets. Before that we scraped all the loose change from our banks
and came to the fortune-teller, amusing her with the fact that so many girls at once wanted to know their
future. She spoke to us one by one. The first girl, exiting from the fortune-teller’s, declared:
- ‘I will marry and have many children.’
The second said simply:
- ‘I will have many children… ’
- ‘But you will marry before then?’
- ‘She never said anything about that.’
We began to argue, then everyone agreed that it couldn’t happen without marriage. My turn came. This
woman didn’t at all look like a sorceress, unlike the horrible old woman I sometimes met when shopping: that
one was all dressed in black and she had an awful hooked nose. Once she attacked me, screaming that I had
stolen her woven bag. I stood, red from shame, because it was a dreadful lie, but passers-by were stopping,
attracted by her accusations. Since then, walking to the drug store, I kept watch whether the witch was nearby,
and if I spotted her – always dressed in a black dress, hunched and lopsided – then I hurriedly hid behind the
plane trees. The fortune-teller from Villeneuve didn’t make you feel anxious. She was chubby, with bright
blue eyes and a friendly smile. In her room there hung pictures of the sky, dotted with beautiful stars.
- ‘When were you born?’
- ‘22nd of July 1946.’
- ‘Ah, I see! Right between Cancer and Leo… you, my girl, are gifted with a lively imagination; let me
just get my tarot cards out… ’
Grandmama had just such cards, but she used them only in secret. She never let me even touch them. With
some fear I watched as the fortune-teller spread them out. Surprise appeared on her face:
- ‘How strange!’ She cried. ‘I see you surrounded by kings and queens… ’
- ‘That’s not surprising,’ I said. ‘I’m memorising the history of France for my school certificate. I have to
learn all the Capetiens off by heart.’
- ‘No, this is different,’ she disagreed. ‘I see you in a circle of live kings and queens.’
- ‘What do you mean – live?!’
I decided that she had lost her mind, more so than the old woman at the corner of the drugstore…
- ‘And I also see that you’ll travel the whole world… ’
I left her room completely flabbergasted. My sisters and friends gathered around me, asking questions;
utterly lost, I answered:
- ‘She told me such strange things… she said that I’d meet kings and queens… ’
What a story! The fortune-teller had told no one else anything like that. I didn’t give any weight to her
prophecy, deciding that she was simply crazy. Matite and Christiane were with me that day and remember
everything well. And many years later, when Christiane, having become a nurse, worked in a hospital, she
looked after a patient who had just had a serious operation. And suddenly that woman told her:
- ‘You are Mireille Mathieu’s sister.’
Christiane doesn’t resemble me physically, and besides she doesn’t like admitting that she’s my sister.
- ‘You are mistaken,’ Christiane replied.
- ‘No, I am not mistaken. I am sure of it, and in my time I correctly predicted her future: she is travelling
the whole world and meeting kings and queens!’
My sister told me of this incredible story when I returned from another trip.
- ‘I would like to see this woman,’ I said.
- ‘That’s impossible. She died the same night… ’
Since then I have never consulted fortune-tellers…
Mme Julien didn’t like my stories, which in addition had plenty of grammatical mistakes. I myself was
very proud of the phrase:
- ‘Chrysanthemums in the snow resemble crystal balls.’
I found this sentence very beautiful and precise, but my teacher’s words were like cold water:
- ‘Everything you write, Mireille, is merely baby talk.’
To understand better what she meant I stuck my nose in the dictionary. It became probably my highest
achievement. I searched the dictionary much more often than the other girls! Once Mme Julien spoke the
word saugrenu (absurd, thoughtless) to me, I understood that it was far from a compliment, and for a long
time tried to understand it. I began to look for it in the dictionary and lost heaps of time…

And at last it came, "‘the day of judgement"’. I lit a candle in church to St. Rita; her image was far from
the altar, but Grandmama assured me that it was to her you needed to pray in hopeless cases. Having asked
for her protection, I should very likely become one of the lucky ones who achieve their school certificate. And
that is what happened. I said to Mme Julien:
- ‘You know, I think I received my certificate because I managed to include in my essay your word
saugrenu.’
This important event was celebrated in our house with a party. It was held not only because I had received
my ‘diploma’, but also because Matite had managed to pass her certificate from the first attempt. A family
council was held at the end of the party. It was decided that there was no reason for Matite and me to go on
learning. Mme Julien was of the same opinion. We had no special talent for mathematics, nor French, nor
other subjects. In a word, no talent for the disciplines!
- ‘Mireille does only one thing well,’ said the teacher. ‘She sings wonderfully. How unfortunate that she
has never seriously taken up music!’
This was my own fault. Mme Julien advised me more than once to attend classes at the music school,
where they were given for free. And so that I could arrive on time she even let me leave school a little early…
Encouraged, I went to the preparatory music theory class, situated in the music school’s beautiful building
on the square before the Papal palace.
Looking around, I understood at once that all twenty-five students knew their notes, whereas I hadn’t the
first idea about them. In addition, I had bad luck: the next day I fell ill with influenza. When two weeks later I
again appeared in class, I was of course seated at the last desk. In a word, everything repeated itself as it was
at school!
- ‘This is all Chinese to me, why do I need to know it?’ I thought. And didn’t set foot there again.
- ‘We could help around the house,’ suggested Matite, who loved to cook and keep house. I confess that
those kind of tasks weren’t attractive to me. To my great relief, Papa didn’t support my sister’s suggestion.
Matite, of course, was still a little girl, but I had already turned fourteen, so he decided that it would be better
to find me some kind of work.
- ‘It is necessary to learn some kind of trade,’ he said. ‘It will always support you in life.’
I eagerly agreed. I couldn’t wait to make my contribution to the family budget. The ability to earn my own
living filled me with pride. From now on I wouldn’t be a burden to anyone!
- ‘Yes, Papa, I really want to work, and I’m ready to do anything.’
- ‘Do anything… do you realise what you’re saying?! I won’t allow you to do just anything!’
Everyone laughed. I though with satisfaction that my childhood had come to an end. I had now become a
young woman and could help my family.
One evening my father, having returned home, said:
- ‘The thing’s in the bag! Tomorrow morning you can start at the envelope-making factory!’
- ‘What will I do there, Papa?’
- ‘What will you do? Glue envelopes, I suppose.’
And because happiness doesn’t happen once, Mama in her turn arrived with astounding news: we were
being moved once again.
- ‘We’re going to live in the quarter Croix-des-Oiseaux, they have built some low-priced apartments
there!’
Croix-des-Oiseaux… it was a real palace! At least it seemed so to us: there we had four rooms, and above
all a shower! And an unheard-of luxury: hot water flowed from the tap. Our parents had a room with a
balcony. And in the room which Christiane, Matite and I shared was a washstand; one other room was given
to the boys, and the other – to the youngest girls. A drug store and a book shop were situated on the ground
floor of the house.
- ‘I think we’ll live well here, my little quail,’ said Mama, ‘and then, with your help, it’ll be easier to make
ends meet!’
She said this to encourage me, because I brought home only 350 franks. To tell the truth, there was
nothing else to pay me for. But the name of my position – stock operator - sounded solid enough. All in all
there were twenty of us workers; I worked in the packaging section. On one side lay a pile of envelopes, and
on the other – boxes in which they were to be laid. A simple enough task… as the youngest, I was placed to
help two experienced workers – Mme Jeanne and her husband Louis.
- ‘Didn’t you start working a bit young?’ she said.
- ‘Not at all! I’m already in my fifteenth year!’
- ‘Do you want a lolly?’
Mme Jeanne showed me how to fold cardboard to make a box. I would give her one, she’d bind it with
clips using a machine and hand it to her husband, who packed the envelopes into it.
- ‘This job isn’t hard at all!’
- ‘At your age everything seems a game,’ she observed, not without some surprise.

On the factory
I sang constantly, and our workshop became much more lively. Once, the owner of the factory came in; I
shut up at once.
- ‘Keep going, keep going, my dear. With your arrival the work goes faster!’
After that he would occasionally look in:
- ‘How are things, Mireille? Has something happened? Why aren’t you singing this morning?’
He was very friendly. I didn’t want to disappoint Mme Jeanne and her husband, who still gave me sweets,
but I dreamed of moving to the workshop where they made the envelopes. This work was paid a little better.
Everyone sat behind a small machine which cut the paper, folded the envelopes and smeared glue on them.
The job demanded attention: if the machine wasn’t stopped in time a hand could get caught in it. Therefore
there could be no talk about trusting such work to a girl not yet fifteen. But I wanted to earn even a tiny bit
more, and I bravely asked the owner whether I could work extra hours.
- ‘Could you arrive here by five a.m.?’
- ‘Of course, monsieur!’
- ‘But you’ll have to get up at the crack of dawn. You won’t manage without a bicycle… ’
He offered that I take a bike and pay for it gradually, out of my wages. The instalments, I have to say,
were very modest, but having acquired a bike I could leave home at dawn and return late at night, saving time.
Of course, not everything was that easy… both early in the morning and late at night I had to take out or
return the bike to the cellar of our house, and darkness reigned there. Just in case, I armed myself with a
broom, because I felt very cowardly. But my aim to bring home 500 franks a month instead of 350 helped me
to conquer my fear. Mama guessed that I was very scared, and reassured me:
- ‘Don’t worry, my darling, I’m standing on guard.’
The next year Matite turned fourteen. I asked the factory owner whether he would take my little sister to
work. She took my place in the package area, where I had helped Mme Jeanne and her husband, and I finally
moved to the workshop with the envelope machines. Every shift, about seven thousand envelopes were made
on each of them. I handled them playfully. What if the machine was set to work just a little bit faster,
wouldn’t it then make more envelopes?! For that I only had to change my repertoire and sing the songs of
Trenet instead of Piaf!
Pride filled me at the thought that I now also earned money, and heard much less often how Mama
complained that ‘this month it will again be impossible to buy the things we need’; this helped me bear certain
inconveniences more easily, for example, days when the mistral blew. Raging, it burst into the alleys between
houses with such strength that each time it threatened to flatten me and my bike against a wall. Then I had to
get off the seat and, clasping the handles tightly, slowly creep along in total darkness… but now Matite went
to work with me, and whatever they say, together things are not so scary!
We both got up at four o’clock, trying not to wake the others. But Mama and Papa were always on their
feet by then, making coffee for us…
There were often engagements made at the factory, and things usually culminated in a wedding; in such
cases the owner sent around a glass of wine for everyone, and I was invariably asked to sing.
- ‘It is about time you took part in the contest!’ said one of my girlfriends once.
- ‘And she’ll win, of course!’ said another.
- ‘With her wondrous voice!’ Added Mme Jeanne.
They meant the contest ‘They sing in my quarter’, which was organised by the city hall, aiming to revive
musicianship in Avignon: it was a contest between amateurs, who sang songs at each crossroads!
Returning from the factory, we went past the ‘Beer Palace’, where teenagers who lived nearby gathered
eagerly. Occasionally someone had a glass right by the entrance. As is known, I wasn’t particularly brave, and
hurriedly tried, unnoticed, to slip inside. Some of my girlfriends scheduled meetings with their admirers here.
Me – never. Flirting didn’t attract me. And besides, in my mind a secret idea slowly ripened, gradually taking
over my whole being: I dreamed of becoming a singer. Does there exist a more wonderful occupation in the
world?! It gives you joy all year round. And you give happiness to everyone who listens to you. Because as
you sing, they forget about their problems, their pains… I had observed this in our house, when we listened to
Edith Piaf.
As they day of the competition approached, the inhabitants of each quarter became more and more
passionate defenders of the one who was to uphold their prestige. And then I gathered my resolve. Matite and
my girlfriends from the factory from day to day persistently tried to convince me that it was about time I
spoke to Mama.
- ‘I am already thinking about it,’ she said. ‘I just don’t know how your father will react to it… ’
Our Papa – so kind and yet with that so strict… we were never allowed to leave home in the evenings, so
there could be no talk about being late for something, even by ten minutes… on Sunday, when we could
without hurrying sit down and chat, I, exchanging a meaningful look with Mama, began to talk about the
contest.
- ‘A great idea, this contest,’ observed Papa. ‘You know, were I younger, I would take part in it myself, in
a suitable section.’
- ‘In what section? As a performer of comic songs?’ Said Mama scathingly.
Papa threw her a withering look:
- ‘Comic songs? Me?! I would have performed as an opera singer, and you know it very well! But our
Mimi here can perform in the contest as a variety singer. And she can do it well.’
The idea about my participation in the contest was expressed by Papa himself: I had won!
Perhaps not quite yet, however. I still had to prepare for the contest. I dared take the first step: Mama and I
went to the city hall, where I entered myself as a competitor.
- ‘In which section do you intend to perform?’ Asked the attendant.
- ‘As a variety singer!’
- ‘What? But you are still so small!’
- ‘However, I have a strong voice!’
For the first time I, so naturally shy, defended my rights. Mama looked at me with undisguised
amazement. Then I did not realise it, but later, remembering that incident, understood clearly that just at that
moment the insurmountable desire to be a professional singer had been born in me. I felt, though not quite
consciously, that not for anything would I agree to spend my whole life at the factory, gluing envelopes or
making boxes, like poor Mme Jeanne. That night I tossed and turned in bed for a long time.
- ‘Aren’t you asleep?’ Said Matite surprisedly.
- ‘No. How do you think: what if I really do become a genuine singer?’
- ‘Like Edith Piaf or Maria Candido? That would utterly change our whole lives!’
I imagined Mama, who works hard even just before giving birth… she awaited then her twelfth child. One
more mouth to feed…
- ‘But look: not a word to anyone! Let this be our secret.’
- ‘I understand. After all, it is still just a game.’
The next day everyone argued hotly which song I should choose. Myself, I liked ‘Mon légionnaire’ best
of all, but here Mama firmly disagreed:
- ‘This song is too old for you!’
We voted with a simple show of hands, and the majority went for the song ‘Les Cloches de Lisbonne’,
which Maria Candido’s performance had made famous. I successfully passed the preliminary sortings in the
presence of the contest’s organisers. The committee was headed by Raoul Colombe, the deputy mayor,
president of the Co-ordinating Committee of Avignon Activities. He was helped by Jean-Denis Languet,
previously a reporter at the Dauphiné Libéré. I fulfilled all the criteria set down for the contest: I was a full
fifteen years old (soon to be sixteen) and I wasn’t a professional actress.
The important evening came; it was June.
- ‘Are you scared?’ Asked Matite, brushing my hair before the performance.
- ‘Yes, a little bit… ’
- ‘But it’s… still a game… ’
She looked at me meaningfully, as if reminding about our agreement.
And it began! I stood on a raised platform… just like at school fetes, with the sole difference that before
me were not my friends, but a real public. A public that had come here to enjoy themselves, compare and
discuss the singers, and maybe whistle them off the stage. Some listened very attentively, because they were
on my side, others, on the other hand, made noise. I decided to do whatever it took to achieve success. And
trilled out my song. In those minutes I vowed to myself to overcome all obstacles and become a singer!
- ‘Dear God, I was afraid that you’d lose your voice!’ Mama admitted to me later in the evening.
I qualified for the semi-finals. My sisters were more anxious than I was myself. My brothers, grandfather,
grandmother, Aunt Irène, my cousin, great-aunt Juliette – all stood right behind me… only poor uncle Raoul,
whose hump brought good luck, was absent. Seemingly, that was the charm I needed but lacked. In a word,
this time ‘Les Cloches de Lisbonne’ did not announce my triumph. The winner was a pretty blonde, who had
performed in another quarter, far from the centre! It was unthinkable… simply unthinkable…
- ‘Don’t cry, my dear,’ said M. Colombe to me kindly. ‘You are so young. You still have lots of time! Use
it to work on your voice, and… till next year!’
Only Matite alone understood the depth of my despair. I had suffered a defeat… and like the story with
the school certificate, I had to take another shot at success. But her swollen veins made it necessary for Mama
to go to hospital again… I saw her suffering, I understood how worried she was about the constant demand
for money, and so the need to wait another whole year seemed to me unbearable. And I had so hoped for
success!
- ‘Monsieur Colombe is absolutely right,’ said Papa, ‘you really do need to work on your voice. For that
you’ll have to have lessons.’
I was alarmed:
- ‘In the music school again, because they teach for free?’
- ‘No, since you didn’t like it… I was thinking about something completely different. You know Marcel,
the collier?’
- ‘The one who lives near the cemetery?’
- ‘Exactly. He was a tenor in Toulon before you were born.’
I was amazed. A tenor… who suddenly decided to become a collier?
- ‘Well, yes, when he began to lose his voice… he had to take up selling coal. Never forget about this
incident if you become a singer, my daughter!’
Really I didn’t take lessons from the collier himself, but from his wife Laure Collière. They had married
when she was a pianist in the Toulon Opera. Later she became a concert master in the Avignon Opera. And
once she retired, she began to give music lessons.
- ‘I won’t take much from Mimi,’ she said to Papa. ‘Is six franks per lesson all right with you?’
I had insisted that I would pay for my schooling from my own earnings. And, as a ‘brilliant laureate’ of
the school certificate (let us not remember how I got it!), I quickly calculated that for two lessons a week I
would have to put aside 48 franks monthly, and I could take them out of my pocket money, without affecting
the family budget.
- ‘Yes, that is fine!’ I exclaimed.
I was proud of myself. I was happy also that Papa, albeit silently, supported me. Of course, he understood
that now it wasn’t just a game for me… my future was at stake. But I never told anyone anything, I hid it all
at the bottom of my heart. I didn’t even speak about it with Matite. Uttering words out loud touches the most
inner, treasured part of you, and even a flower can wilt when touched. In that sense I was already becoming a
performer, without even realising it – I was beginning to believe in omens!
My first lesson nearly ended in catastrophe. Mme Collière assumed that doubtlessly, I knew music theory.
- ‘You don’t even know the notes?’
- ‘No, Madame.’
- ‘That doesn’t prevent you from singing in tune, happily! All right, then, let us begin with vocals… ’
I really liked it. I felt true elation when I sang melodious vowel sounds in a loud voice. Perhaps too loud.
Mme Collière had to temper my enthusiasm.
- ‘Mireille, if you’ll permit me to say so, you don’t sing, you yell! Learn to modulate!’
For me that was the hardest to do… but hadn’t I firmly decided to succeed? In my ears sounded the voice
of Edith Piaf, whose torrent of a voice took up the listener and carried him away. Mme Collière stubbornly
tried to direct me on the right path, but in my heart I didn’t completely trust her. In a word, as Fanchon had
said once, I was as stubborn as a mule…
- ‘I am not at all sure that you’re doing the right thing in deciding to sing ‘L’Hymne à l’amour’ at the
contest,’ she tried to persuade me. ‘You are still too young for that.’
I tried not to show it, but her words made me despair. Too young! When would they finally stop
considering me a child? I paid for these lessons with my own money! Does a child have his own money?
- ‘Very well… you’ll see for yourself… ’ said Mme Collière.
Mireille and MMe Collière
Nonetheless we continued to work on ‘L’Hymne à l’amour’ twice weekly in the house on Rue des
Teinturiers. And I still got up at first light to be on time for work at the envelope-making factory, which for
some time now had been situated at Montfavet. Our master hadn’t managed to renew the contracts for the
lease of the old building. I didn’t quite understand what had prevented him from doing so. But facts were
facts: the factory had to move to what we called the country. In truth Montfavet was situated right next to
Avignon. Now, when we had to daily travel a few extra kilometres, Matite and I acquired two Solex bicycles,
the cost of which was taken out of our salaries. We agreed to this because rumours were circulating that our
master was having financial problems. This became clear in winter. There was no money to pay for heating,
and as once at home, we had burn alcohol when our fingers became numb from the cold.
Now my ‘fans’ from ‘The Beer Palace’, where I had begun to perform more often, kept up my spirits.
Especially enthusiastic was Françoise Vidal (her mother owned the hairdresser’s in Montfavet). Françoise
was my devoted follower.
- ‘Before the contest I’ll take you to Mama, and she’ll make you a wonderful hairstyle. I’m sure of it.’
Her mother let Françoise go to discos. This didn’t interest me much.
- ‘You’ll see, you’ll meet such nice boys there… ’
I shook my head, declining. I only had enough free time to help around the house a little, go to music
lessons and dream about the future. Françoise insisted.
- ‘On Sunday after lunch, lets go have some fun at the ‘Bowling’!’
She meant the nearby discotheque. I persuaded Matite to go with me. I only agreed to go so that I could
listen to the discs. However, Edith Piaf wasn’t particularly popular here. Here, they idolised the Beatles and
Elvis… I met an acquaintance there – Michel, in his time he had played in the same school yard as I. Having
matured, each time he met me with groceries in my hands he would take the basket from my hands and help
carry it home; often he played football with the twins, who were six years younger than him.
- ‘It’s rare to meet a boy who likes to play with the little ones!’ Remarked Mama. ‘He must have a good
heart.’
I don’t think that Mama didn’t understand why Michel so often hung around near our house. She had long
ago guessed that he wasn’t indifferent to me. His bike, as though accidentally, constantly appeared in our
way. Perhaps everything had to do with Matite, with whom I was inseparable; on seeing Michel she’d burst
out laughing. He never missed a celebration at which I sang, but behaved very modestly. I think he was a little
afraid of my father.
- ‘You protect your daughters so much,’ joked Mama, ‘that you’ll scare away all my future sons-in-law!’
Once Michel came with tickets to a football match; he was a big fan. He played himself, and went to
matches in which his friends competed. But I was learning the song ‘La vie en rose’, Matite declared that she
didn’t like football, and the poor guy had to deal with the twins again.
Michel told me that he would without fail come to the contest, to raise my morale; moreover, he declared
that he’d penetrate backstage as well.
- ‘No, no, that’s impossible.’
He stared at me in surprise:
- ‘But I want to cheer you up… ’
- ‘You don’t understand… in those minutes I can count only on myself. No one can help me, not Mama
nor even Papa!’
Then he declared that he’d sit in the hall, in one of the left rows. How could I explain to him that on stage,
I couldn’t make out a single face in the public!
For the second time I suffered defeat. Mme Collière turned out to be right. I was seen, without doubt, to
be too young for ‘L’Hymne à l’amour’, and I felt it at once. The public reacted condescendingly to the young
songstress. I even received some applause, but I couldn’t fire up the auditorium. Victory again slipped right
out of my grasp. All that was left to do was hide my disappointment, which I did, quietly swallowing tears.
- ‘It’s all right, it’s all right, everything’s not that bad,’ Papa tried to comfort me. ‘You did beat many of
your rivals… ’
- ‘I might have beaten them, but someone else came first!’
I remembered for a long time the surprised look that Papa gave me. While I was still at school, even in the
last year, when I had to achieve my school certificate, he had never heard me speak in that tone of voice. The
decisiveness that had sounded in my words was something completely new. And I added immediately:
- ‘I will never accept this defeat!’
- ‘Are you going to continue taking lessons?’
- ‘Of course, Papa.’
He smiled. When M. Colombe kindly came over to comfort me, I said with unexpected firmness:
- ‘Till next year!’
The next day I was again with Mme Collière.
- ‘Now, my little quail, you sing more melodiously and soundly, but you are still too loud… it’s not that
easy to become a real singer.’
- ‘It may be so, but I still want to be one. And only a real one.’
The lessons continued. Finally I had come to love them. They became my real refuge. There I forgot about
my troubles, of which at the factory there were more and more, the atmosphere there became heavier every
day. Not even speaking about the anxieties at home, of which there were more than enough. It was necessary
to constantly worry about the health of my little brothers: they were quite sickly and fragile.
- ‘Oh! If only they had your health,’ said Mama, distressed.
On the day that Rémi turned seven, his temperature leaped up to forty degrees (the poor thing had often
been ill in the past as well). His throat swelled up so that he couldn’t say a word. We urgently called doctor
André. Just in case he took a smear, although he was sure about the diagnosis: diphtheria. And once again –
the hospital. Finally, the tenth of May in the year 1964, which was to play such an important role in my life,
Mama brought the thirteenth child into the world…
Thank God, it was a girl, we could hope that with her there would be fewer problems than with the boys.
The same cheerful nurse said with a satisfied look:
- ‘I did tell you, Madame Mathieu, that you wouldn’t stop at a dozen and give us a thirteenth… ’
And Mama laughed and laughed… I had never before seen her so happy! She became serious only when
she spoke with me about the singing contest. I had decided to again perform with an Edith Piaf song, whose
style this time quite suited me; at least I thought so.
- ‘And what does Mme Collière say about it?’
- ‘She thinks that this time everything will go well.’
- ‘All the better,’ remarked Mama, ‘I do love that song, ‘La vie en rose’!
I knew that. And partly because of that chose it. Let it even deceive my true admirer Michel, convinced
that I sang it for him…
Of course, I was very nervous. Even more so than the first time. I desperately needed a victory. This time
I followed Mme Collière’s advice exactly. Mercilessly, I worked on my voice each evening; standing before
the closet mirror, I painstakingly searched for the image I would present to the public. Papa asked Aunt Irène
to go with me to the shop ‘Muguet de Paris’ and choose a dress there for me. That was the most chic shop in
Avignon. The fact itself that Papa had decided to use up his small savings showed that he believed in me.
Mama didn’t leave the side of little Béatrice, who had just turned a month old, and Aunt Irène gladly agreed
to carry out the task. I told her that I needed the most simple black dress.
- ‘One like Piaf’s?’ She asked.
I nodded in agreement.
Edith Piaf had died only eight months before. This loss had shaken the whole of France, and for the first
time I realised to what extent a country could love a popular singer. At home we read the newspaper out loud,
where there was much said about her. We studied photographs, taken during the funeral. And mourned her
death, as though she had been a member of our family. I was shaken, having understood that a person can be
close to millions of people. I couldn’t even imagine that I’d dare to replace her. She remained the one and
only. Even our father said:
- ‘This loss is irreplaceable… ’
And I was convinced of that. When I sang Piaf’s songs during her lifetime, it seemed to me that through
that I express the highest admiration for her. And now, when she was no more, I wouldn’t forgive myself if I
stopped singing them. We had to honour her memory.
- ‘There is nothing shameful in that… ’ said Grandmama, giving me Piaf’s last disc.
The dress, bought in the section of mourning clothes, had muslin sleeves. Edith Piaf would never have
worn anything like that, but nothing more modest could be found. I needed shoes too, and I chose the ones
with the highest heels: I wanted to seem taller.
- ‘You need to put insoles in there, and thick ones, or the shoes will fall off your feet,’ commented the
saleswoman, barely hiding her disapproval. Aunt Irène took me also to Madame Vidal’s hairdresser’s.
- ‘Keep your fringe: it suits you very well.’
And when she saw my short cut, which barely covered the ears, she exclaimed:
- ‘You look so nice! The spitting image of Louise Brooks!’
- ‘Who is she?’
- ‘A famous film actress, but you haven’t seen her on the screen.’
This didn’t interest me much. Then, I thought only of Edith Piaf, whom I had seen onscreen just twice.
- ‘I think that this time you have a very good chance!’ Said M. Colombe to me after the semi-final.
- ‘In nature things go in threes!’ Added M. Languet.
Their certainty filled me with hope. In the final I performed standing on an elevation in the centre of the
magnificent square of the Papal palace. Behind it could be seen the Doms cliff, which I had so loved in
childhood. The weather was wonderful. The mistral, miraculously, had died down. There was no space for
even an apple to fall on the square. And suddenly I felt an unusual silence, an almost religious anticipation…

Quand il me prend dans ses bras


Je vois la vie en rose… !

… and a sudden explosion, a storm of applause, I felt as though I was floating above the ground… never
before had I experienced anything like it.
- ‘Dear God! Dear God! Make it so that it happens again!’
I cried. Papa cried. Mama cried. Grandmama cried. Matite cried. The whole family cried, except baby
Beatrice: having cried all day, she now smiled innocently! The decision had been announced: this time I had
won the ‘Critérium’ (song tournament)! Flashes of light, the running of photographers… poor Michel was
overwhelmed by journalists, my girlfriends, the inhabitants of our quarter. His football skills didn’t help him
much: the chaos that had arisen seemed more like rugby!
I have to confess: for a whole hour, even several hours, I thought that the course of my life was confirmed,
planned out. Hadn’t I won the contest? Hadn’t my photograph appeared on the front page of the ‘Provençal’
of 29 June 1964? But life went on: the next morning I was already cycling along the road to the factory.
- ‘The owner will probably send you a glass of wine,’ said Papa.
He really did give me a glass, but after that everything didn’t go at all how I expected it. He wished all
kinds of successes to ‘little Mimi’… and after that with an anxious look told us that that was the ‘farewell’
glass. He was forced to shut the factory down… thus, the rumours that had long circulated about his
bankruptcy turned out true. Madame Jeanne cried. Her husband, not hiding his disappointment, stood with his
eyes cast down. The turmoil the owner felt could be clearly read on his face. Thus I remembered those with
whom I had worked at the factory.

Paris, who wins: you or me?

- ‘What are we going to do now?’ asked Matite on the way home.


- ‘Now that I have become a singer… there is nothing to worry about! I will always be able to earn our
living… ’
Alas, it didn’t turn out to be that easy… M. Colombe explained it to me. He believed that I could become
a singer, and sent to a reputable company in Paris a tape on which the songs of my still-modest repertoire
were recorded. But there was no point in hoping for a swift reply, especially since it was now the time of
vacations and holidays.
Holidays… and suddenly it came to me. After a few days I told Françoise the following news:
- ‘To earn some money, I have gotten a job in the summer camp ‘Dragonfly’.
- ‘How did you manage it?’
- ‘Firstly, I myself have stayed there more than once, secondly I am the eldest in a large family, and in
addition to everything I have good recommendations! It’s great! I’ll be teaching children to sing!’
Unlike the envelope-making factory, the Office of Family Benefit had all the necessary funds. Proof of
that: that year a new summer camp was opened at Rochefort-du-Gard. It was there that I met with my little
‘monsters’.
That summer I hadn’t grown very much, and some of my pupils were a head taller than me. All of them
had a steady reputation as problem children. But I understood very well why they were like that. They were
growing up in poor families. Their problems were the same as those experienced by the inhabitants of
Malpeignes: the need for money, unemployment, drunkenness, divorced parents, family arguments – in a
word, all those difficulties which (except for the lack of money) had bypassed our family, where love always
reigned. With us everyone had an equal right to express their opinions – both children and parents. I had to
use the same tactic if I wanted to win the children’s trust and allow them to be frank with me… with Matite it
was simpler: she had started as a teacher of the youngest group in kindergarten. I had to deal with girls and
boys of ten to twelve years. They were called the ‘terribles’ of the school. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been able
to deal with them, if I hadn’t been surrounded by a kind of aura as the winner of the ‘Song Criterium’. Of
course, they refused to observe the siesta, asserting that it was only for babies. We dedicated this time to
singing. I taught them the ‘canons’.
I had thirty students. They made up quite a good choir. The ice was broken, good relationships were
established. I even heard some of their frank, sometimes dramatic tales: a violent father tormented his wife; a
mother, abandoning her children, left with another man; someone in the family was seriously ill, and
sometimes even died… others confessed in despair that they didn’t understand what there was to live for. I
had little more life experience than they… but I could at least convince them that happiness does exist. And in
the meantime I continued to teach them singing…
Many years later, performing on TV in Mexico, I met a French make-up artist; she was called Marie-José.
She asked me:
- ‘Do you remember me? I was holidaying in the summer camp ‘Dragonfly’…
That was one of my former pupils… she had come to her uncle, who had based himself in Mexico and
made a career. Each time I now find myself in Mexico and again appear on television, I trust myself to her
without fear: she is an excellent make-up artist.
Of course, in the beginning of my career I put on my own make-up. I feel true pleasure, ‘working’ on my
face. They say that monks are recognised my their cowls; at first I thought that true artists were recognised by
their make-up. Since then I have changed my mind… it seems that my adherence to make-up in my youth was
a kind of childish protest against my father’s ban, who stubbornly refused to let us paint our lips and wear
rouge. Now he was silent, understanding that I was grooming myself ‘for the stage’… his unfulfilled dream to
become a singer was coming true in me.
The autumn of 1964 dragged on for me like a long winter. M. Colombe offered me participation in several
gala-concerts in different places. Papa didn’t object.
- ‘It will help you to keep your voice… you mustn’t allow it to become weaker!’
At the mere thought that my voice could sound worse I was gripped by horror. Papa explained to me that a
voice must be worked on constantly, it must be cared for and protected. And I firmly decided to do everything
so that my voice wouldn’t worsen.
Before my appearance on the ‘Critérium’ Aunt Irène had given me her rouge and eyeshadow. Now for
‘my’ gala-concerts I bought my own make-up in the shop ‘Dames de France’. Here my eyes ran away with
me. I hesitated over what to choose: bright red or pale pink rouge, light blue or ultramarine eyeshadow; I
endlessly asked advice of the chubby blonde saleswoman, who could very well be part of the window display:
her face was painted in all the colours of the rainbow. She was a dedicated fan of the ‘Critérium’ and
therefore I became her favourite customer: she even addressed me by the personal ‘tu’. Now, when I returned
home with a whole set of make-up, Papa didn’t make the smallest criticism: no one in the family doubted the
success of my coming career.
However, on the second storey of the town hall, where I went almost every day to ask for any news, they
were already worried. Monsieur Colombe phoned Roger Lanzac, trying to achieve my participation in ‘Télé-
Dimanche’ – this was the most popular program, in which participated the best amateurs singers from all
corners of France.
- ‘This girl, Mireille Mathieu, has had a brilliant victory in our city contest; she could also make a
successful appearance at a national competition… ’
- ‘What did he say?’
- ‘He says that they can’t move from the number of those wanting to take part in the contest. So there is no
hope to appear in it before 1966… ’
When Monsieur Colombe rang Roger Lanzac for the second time, he lost his composure:
- ‘I told you – nothing can be done till 1966!’
To wait almost two years more… it was a whole eternity!
A joyless, empty life, gloomy, like a dried-out river bed. And in addition all other glimmerings of hope
were destroyed when the record company’s answer came. Unfortunately, the reply was also in the negative.
- ‘What did they write, Monsieur Colombe?’
- ‘It seems that they need something unusual… ’
Does that mean that in their opinion I was usual, common? This thought long poisoned my heart.
- ‘A little more patience, my dear Mimi,’ spoke M. Colombe. ‘For now you’ll sing in the park, where they
hold shows… ’
I brought out my black dress and high-heeled shoes. I brought makeup to concerts in my school case.
Mme Collière put up her music and sat down behind the piano. Mainly, those concerts were attended by
youth. In the first row sat the whole Mathieu family, squashed like fans of a favourite football team. Without
fail came my own fan Michel.
- ‘He won’t leave off!’ Said Matite angrily. ‘Do you really like him?’
- ‘He’s nice enough.’
Michel had a loud voice. He always yelled ‘bravo, Mireille!’ first, passing on his delight to the rest of the
public, which usually was mainly interested in pop music.
- ‘What does it mean, this ‘yeah, yeah’?’ Said Papa in outrage. ‘It’s only a concession to fashion. All
fashion goes out of date. But you, you sing songs that are un-for-get-tab-le!’
Once a tall girl called Mauricette came backstage. I hadn’t seen her after finishing school, where she had
been the captain of our basketball team.
- ‘My dear Mauricette! It looks like you’ve grown even more!’
- ‘That’s not the point, Mimi! This time it is you who has thrown the ball into the basket!’

The basketball hoop… how I had dreamed about being able to reach it! I despaired of being so short, and
of hearing the same words over and over: ‘She grows so slowly, your daughter! Is she suffering from
anything?’ – ‘No, of course not, what nonsense,’ said Mama angrily. ‘Look at me, she’s taken after her
mother.’ – ‘But no! You are much taller, Madame Mathieu!’ – ‘But I’ve already stopped growing, and she
hasn’t!’ Mauricette comforted me more than once: ‘You know, it’s good to be of a small height! When they
take pictures of us in school, you’re always in the first row! And when we play basketball it’s nothing for you
to slip forward, grab the ball and throw it over to me, and I’ll get it into the basket!’
This manoeuvre worked every time, without fail. And I even came to terms with being small. Papa,
having heard that night the boundless praise heaped on me by Mauricette, didn’t tire of repeating:
- ‘That’s my daughter: good things come in small packages!’
How could I doubt the future when everyone around me believed in me so much?!
M. Colombe gave me 200 franks, and Matite, her eyes round with amazement, cried:
- ‘Can you imagine it? Two hundred franks for four songs! As much as you used to earn at the factory in
two weeks!’
- ‘Yes, that’s true.’
- ‘Then why do you look so worried?’
- ‘If I’m only going to give two concerts… I’ll earn less in a year than I’d earn in a month making
envelopes!’
Luckily, after just two weeks M. Colombe invited me to participate in another gala-concert. And, as usual,
in the front row sat my dedicated listeners: the whole Mathieu family, and in the back, trying to seem
invisible, Michel.
I still didn’t want him to meet me backstage. How could I explain it? There it was very crowded,
instruments lay or stood everywhere, people went back and forth. Because of my small stature I didn’t attract
much attention, buttoned up, my hair neatly brushed and make-up in place – at least, it seemed so to me – and
awaiting my appearance on stage with a motionless face, like a mannequin, trying to hide the excitement and
fear that had filled me. To conquer it – I felt, I knew it – I couldn’t even turn around, I had to remain totally
ready, not relaxing for a moment. The arrival of Michel, wanting to encourage me, even perhaps to give me a
friendly hug, would do the opposite, make me lose my courage, firmness, stability. But how could I explain
all this to him, without seeming spoiled and proud? Therefore I just told him that he must not follow me
behind the scenes. After the concert I was surrounded and completely taken over by a thick circle of relatives,
so poor Michel could only express his delight by gesturing wildly… I must admit that I picked out his voice
when he – albeit not with hundreds, but merely with two dozens of friends – loudly yelled: ‘Bravo, Mimi!’
Once at the end of February, I as usual climbed to the second storey of the town hall, and there found out
some amazing news.
- ‘Mimi! Everything’s all right, we’ve succeeded! You’re going to Paris! To participate in ‘Télé-
Dimanche’! In the section ‘Game of Fortune’!’
- ‘When will it be?’
- ‘They decided to listen to you at the preliminary auditions for amateur singers on the eighteenth of
March. So you’re leaving by train on the sixteenth of March.’
Easy to say, by train! I hadn’t once in my life travelled on the railway. We were taken to summer holiday
camps by bus. M. Colombe explained to me that the town hall would buy the ticket.
- ‘And what about Aunt Irène’s ticket?’ (Mama was nursing Béatrice, who was only eight months old).
- ‘We don’t have money for the second ticket, but one of the inhabitants of Avignon will probably be
taking the same train as you… ’
And in fact, my companion turned out to be a retired colonel: he was travelling to the assembly of the
knights of the Legion of Honour. By the way, he was a member of our festival organisation committee.
- ‘Don’t talk to anyone on the train except Colonel Cruzel… and that only if he speaks to you first!’
Instructed Mama.
- ‘So you don’t get lost, take a taxi right by the Lyons Station,’ advised Papa.
- ‘Call us from Magali’s as soon as you get there.’
Magali Viaud, a young woman from Courthézon, near Avignon, worked in Paris in an advertising agency.
Her mother was a pianist, and Mama had warned her of my arrival beforehand; Magali promised to lodge me
in her two-bedroom apartment. I took several things with me: my black dress, a make-up set, the music for
four songs and high-heeled shoes. Seeing me at the station with a large suitcase, the colonel asked, ‘Are you
going for a long time?’ – ‘I don’t even know myself.’
I was going to sing, and who knows, perhaps I would be offered a contract. On the platform – the train left
at thirteen hours thirteen minutes, which seemed to me a good omen – Mama, Matite, Christiane and
everyone else cried so hard as though they had no hope of seeing me again. The colonel lifted my suitcase to
put it into the luggage net, and cried:
- ‘My God, it is so light! There’s not much in here!’
- ‘If I need anything else, I’ll buy it in Paris!’
I didn’t yet believe that my name would ‘crown the affiches’, as Aznavour says, but it already seemed to
me that my life would ‘unfurl like a beautiful fan’… Papa came into the wagon and hugged me hard, very
hard.
- ‘You show them in Paris how they sing here in Avignon!’
Papa quickly jumped out, and then I saw Michel on the platform. He didn’t dare to come up to us… but he
came to see me off with Mauricette and my girlfriends from the factory, and their mothers. There was
Françoise Vidal and her mother, who had done my hair so well. Even my brothers’ friends came. A bouquet
of flowers was handed from hand to hand, until at last it was thrust at me through the wagon’s window.
Near the train was even a reporter who had covered the song contest. ‘Well, are you very nervous?’ He
asked me. The train was already moving, and I could only call out to him, ‘I swear, not at all!’
This was the truth. Even if I had had time, I couldn’t’ve said anything else! In my dreams I was being
carried towards a great happiness, the even knocking of the train’s wheels lulled me, and the landscape
flashing by outside delighted me…
And so, for the first time in my life I was by myself, free. I hadn’t yet turned nineteen…
The final stop… Paris. The Colonel said to me, ‘Goodbye, little Mimi, and lots of success to you!’ – and
disappeared at once, surrounded by his colleagues. I was left to myself, and joined the queue for a taxi on the
square before the Lyons Station, which seemed to me as huge as the Papal palace. I didn’t dare look around,
fearing to attract attention. With the easy manner of someone who knows her way around I gave the address
to the taxi driver: ‘Rue d’Aboukir’, and with surprise heard in reply: ‘You’re not from around here!’
Papa had insisted that I shouldn’t talk to people I didn’t know, but it couldn’t apply to the taxi driver, and
so I asked: ‘How did you guess that?’ – ‘It’s not hard – by your accent!’ – ‘Do you speak with an accent too?’
– ‘Me? Nothing doing! I was born in Paris!’
I didn’t argue with him, remembering Papa’s advice not to enter into conversation with anyone. But the
thought didn’t leave me that Parisians aren’t very friendly. That made me feel uncomfortable. I tried not to
show how surprised I was by everything that opened up before my eyes. Along the banks of the Seine there
were multitudes of second-hand booksellers. There, where we would have sold melons, Parisians sold books!
Did that mean that they read a lot and were very educated? How would I look among them with my wretched
school certificate! I felt very lonely when we arrived on Rue d’Aboukir. I don’t know myself why I had
expected a wide avenue. In reality I found myself on a narrow road before a huge house; the chauffeur
explained: ‘A popular newspaper is housed here… ’ – and took my suitcase. ‘Looks like there aren’t too many
things in here! Why do you need such a huge trunk?’ – ‘So that I can fill it to the top here!’
I don’t know what had come over me, but I had shut up, like a clam.
The corridor leading from the entrance seemed to me dark and gloomy. I climbed to the fourth storey. I
have to admit I was a little scared… happily, Magali, whom I had never seen, turned out to have an open,
friendly face. She was twenty-three years old, but I imagined that the difference in our ages was much greater.
She already had her own life, friends and a job, she had her own apartment, favourite books and closets full of
possessions. And most importantly, she understood how to live in Paris, she was prepared enough for it!
Whereas I – I only had a loud voice and a large suitcase, in which there rattled a dress, a brassiere, panties and
a toothbrush.
The next day was a Sunday, and naturally I wanted to go to mass. The nearest church, Notre-Dame-des-
Victoires, was located right after the intersection, where there was the beginning of a little street which served
as the continuation of Rue d’Aboukir; its name – Rue du Mail – reminded me of the South. It ended in a small
square, of which there were so many in the province; almost all of this square was taken up by a large church,
and right across it was a little baker-confectioner’s, where, like in Avignon, one could go to have a sweet roll
after the mass.
Inside the cathedral I just stood there, my mouth open. To the left of the nave stretched a small gallery,
decked with the gifts of the parishioners… I had never seen such a large quantity of offerings… one would
think that the Parisians had more troubles than us!
How many inscriptions thanking for a cure, for a prayer listened to, and simply words of gratitude to the
Virgin Mary! Not far from the altar I saw the statue of my favourite – Saint Rita. I had with me the money to
catch a taxi to the concert hall… but I risked using up a little to buy a wax candle. I lit it nervously. Too bad:
I’d just have to forget about the sweet Parisian roll…
In our house we were so used to watching ‘Télé-Dimanche’ that the presenter, Roger Lanzac, almost
began to seem like a family member. Sometimes we would say: ‘He looks a little tired… ’ or another time
were glad: ‘Well, today he looks just magnificent!’ We noticed everything: bags under his eyes, how his voice
sounded, how his costume sat on him, what tie he wore… Therefore, without any hint of fear, I came up to
him and said naturally:
- ‘Good day, Monsieur Lanzac! I’m Mireille Mathieu from Avignon.’
He replied:
- ‘Good gracious, it turns out you have a strong accent!’
I know it well myself, but when I am told about it my shyness threatens to overwhelm me. A pretty blonde
woman kindly asked me for music…
- ‘Piaf again!’ Says the pianist expressively.
The blonde lady leads me to the microphone. There is no audience in the hall, and therefore both my
songs – ‘La vie en rose’ and ‘l’Hymne à l’amour’ – fall into resounding, frightening silence. From nowhere a
voice comes:
- ‘Thank you, mademoiselle. We’ll write to you.’
I am baffled. The pianist returns my music. And then I resolutely ask the blonde lady: ‘But… where will
they write to me?’ – ‘Where? To Avignon, of course. You still live there, no?’ – ‘And when will that be?’
In answer, the lady merely shrugs. So many participate in the preliminaries… everything is full until
1966…
They didn’t like me. It is perfectly obvious that they didn’t like me. Otherwise they’d have asked me to
stay. Magali tries to comfort me. Since M. Colombe gave me 500 franks, she suggests going to the shops.
This time – no taxi. We descend into the metro. They do look unhappy, those who use it! It’s easy to
understand them: the air there is dank, stagnant, the walls grey, and the people – like ants in an anthill! We
visit the lower storeys of the shops ‘Printemps’ and ‘Galeries Lafayette’. They are, perhaps, even larger than
the Papal palace! But nothing gladdens me, because I’m not really seeing anything. Magali tries to convince
me to buy a grey sweater.
- ‘It sits well on you and goes with your black dress… ’
- ‘I have the feeling that I’m never going to wear that dress again.’
- ‘All right, stop it,’ Magali cuts me off. ‘I’m betting anything that soon you’ll again appear on Rue
d’Aboukir!’
I had arrived on the train that left at thirteen thirteen, and I lit a candle for Saint Rita… why had
everything turned out so badly? On the way back to Avignon the suitcase seemed to me much heavier than
when I set out, perhaps because there was so much weighing on my heart.
Papa met me like a heroine. Mama was delighted with a colourful postcard which had a picture of the
Eiffel Tower on it. I had chosen such an inexpensive present because it was all that I could afford. The 500
franks given to me by M. Colombe I returned in full, saying:
- ‘Nothing came of it. I think that in Paris, they didn’t like me very much… ’
I was still under the impression of failure. M. Colombe is shrewd, and it didn’t escape him that I was close
to tears.
- ‘Listen, Mireille… they’re all a bit crazy over in Paris! They don’t know themselves what they’re doing.
But one fine day they’ll realise their mistake… and then you’ll again go to Magali’s. But until then, keep the
five hundred franks, and look after your voice: you’ll need it for the gala-concerts. And keep taking lessons –
summer isn’t far off.’
Life went on at our house. So as not to distress me, no one mentioned Paris. And I – all the more so. Only
once did I say to Françoise: ‘No one will be looking for me here!’
My former classmate Lyne Mariani, meeting me on the street, found that I didn’t look like myself:
‘Remember how happy you used to be! You just had to burst our laughing – and we’d all be infected!’
It was this same infectious laugh that had befriended the daughter of a businessman and the daughter of a
modest stonemason. Wanting to lift my mood, she tried to persuade me to go out and have fun… but Papa’s
views hadn’t changed: he didn’t think that an eighteen-year-old girl, having once visited the capital, had the
right to change her way of life. The eldest daughter should act as a model for the others, and therefore – no
dances, no late nights. Especially since at home there is always something to do: three-year-old Philippe runs
around the house like crazy; the twins, who have already turned thirteen years old, constantly think of stupid
practical jokes and cause unthinkable chaos; the most quiet of them all is Rémi, but he needs help with his
homework; six-year-old Sophie is a little demon – who thought of dipping the dog’s tail into Papa’s can of
paint and use it for a brush?!
No, nothing had changed in my life… and the mistral blew constantly, as before. Once, when I was riding
my bike, the mistral came with such force that I fell over into a pile of cauliflower. Strange, why were all
these cauliflower heads heaped in a pile in the middle of the field, it’s not the place for them! A few paces
away stood a farmhouse. I risked knocking at the door: ‘Excuse me, Madame, why is there a pile of
cauliflower here?’ – ‘It’s already spoiled a bit. So we threw it out.’ – ‘Would I be able to take it, Madame?
We’ll find a use for it at our house!’
I rouse my sisters. We arrive there with bags. And carry away all the cauliflower. At home we thoroughly
clean and sort it, and there is enough to make three different dishes for the whole family. Mama was very
happy, since in keeping house she constantly met with difficulties about food. A careless attitude to it she
thought a crime. Sitting down at the table, we didn’t say a prayer, as they did in especially pious families, but
we made the sign of the cross over the bread, and often Mama repeated: ‘Thank God that he sends you bread,
while so many people in the world starve’. Never will I forget this incident with the cauliflower…
And Monsieur Colombe, in his turn, didn’t forget about little Mireille. When it was announced that in July
inside the building of the travelling circus there would be a gala-concert with the participation of Enrico
Macias, under the aegis of the Festivals Committee, he went to the concert organiser with the request to allow
the favourite of the town, who had won the contest ‘They sing in my quarter’, to perform in the first half.
Permission was given without much difficulty. I again donned my black dress and high-heeled shoes, with
already habitual pleasure laid down a thin layer of make-up on my face: it didn’t belong to me anymore, but
to the public! The heavenly gates of my dream, which had opened up slightly before me and then slammed
tightly shut, suddenly came apart again… my interrupted career went on. I was giddy with happiness. Rumour
about this concert spread not only in our quarter, but also beyond its boundaries.
- ‘Mimi? She’s going to sing with Enrico Macias,’ informed Mama, not without pride.
One could, of course, say ‘with him’, but it would be more correct to say ‘before him’. And if really
correctly – ‘much, much earlier’, so I didn’t even much hope to see him! I perform right at the start of the
concert. Naturally, friends from Avignon and the whole Mathieu family see me off with applause. I return
backstage, which seems to me the most wondrous place in the world – everywhere cables, dust, general
excitement, cries: ‘Damn it! Give me some light! What the devil!..’ And above everything reign the bright
light of the projectors, I overhear the standard compliments exchanged by actors and actresses: ‘How are you,
coco?’ or ‘Darling, today you were sublime!’ The interval begins. I am still numb. The concert organiser
meets a tall man coming in from the hall and warmly thanks him for coming, he replies that he sees nothing to
thank him for: he promised, so he came… he goes to greet the artists. And then his eyes land on me. Two
steps, and he is before me: ‘So you are the singing girl from Avignon? Well, you have a nice voice, but you
need to work on it a lot.’ – ‘I know, m’sieur.’ – ‘And you really want to become a singer?’ – ‘It’s the dream of
my whole life!’
He smiles at me, and I have to tilt my head back precariously to meet the glance of his blue eyes.
- ‘Excellent… I am called Johnny Stark. Wait for my letter.’
Well, I am already familiar with that tune! But for some reason I believe him. I am so shaken that I even
forget to take a look at Enrico Macias. Returning home, I retell the conversation to Papa.
- ‘How did you say he was called? Johnny Stark?’
- ‘Yes, that’s it.’
- ‘He must be American.’
- ‘Probably, he looks like one.’
- ‘And he told you he’d write to you? Well, all we can do is wait.’
Every day I lie in wait for the postman, awaiting a letter from New York, but it still doesn’t come. Neither
does the letter from ‘Télé-Dimanche’. The slim thread of hope that led to my dreams is snapped again. And
reality intrudes in all its unsightliness: Grandpapa falls very badly ill. He is struck by paralysis, doomed to
motionlessness and deprived of speech. This is what he managed to say to me at the last: ‘When you perform
on TV, I’ll buy you a new dress!’ Now he resembles those saints that he used to carve out of stone. Only their
faces expressed bliss, while his is one of suffering. Between the doctor and my parents there is the following
conversation: ‘Are you able to pay for his stay in hospital? Is he insured or not?’ – ‘No, he’s not insured! He’s
one of the old masters. And in those times labourers weren’t insured.’ – ‘So that means that you have no
money for his treatment?’
Papa flares up: ‘So if you have no money, you can die without aid?! We’ll pay by the month.’ Here Mama
intervenes: ‘Listen, Roger, this isn’t the way. He’ll be completely neglected in hospital. It’s better if me wove
him in with us. Tell me, doctor, what would they treat him with in hospital?’ – ‘There’s almost nothing to be
done… we’ll administer a massage treatment to relieve pain, give some medicines… ’ – ‘But we can do all
that at home.’
Papa, moved to tears, cries: ‘You’ve always been the best wife to me!’
Grandpapa is moved in with us. He is allocated the girls’ room – it is closest to the bathroom. Poor man…
he can’t go there by himself… but this way it’s be easier for my parents. Now they have thirteen children and
an old man, helpless as a baby, to look after. Each morning Mama and Papa get up at five o’clock to wipe the
patient and change his sheets. Everyone takes turns to feed him, and at first he tries to eat. But little by little
he begins to refuse food. I don’t understand what the reason for that is: whether it is the body that doesn’t
want nourishment, or the soul that cannot accept it. Only his eyes are alive. When we enter his room, he looks
at us attentively, as if to say: ‘My poor children, I am causing you so much grief… ’ And we are all engulfed
by deep sadness. Papa tries to cheer him up, lift his spirits. He speaks to Grandpapa kindly in Provençal, and I
can guess the meaning of his words: ‘You’ll conquer this ailment! We’ll nurse you back to health! We need
you, all of us!’ He tells the old man about what he does in the cemetery, and how he managed to repair the
statue of Saint Anne, which stood in the corner of the workshop…
Sometimes I manage to make Grandpapa swallow a couple of times: feeding him from a spoon, I sing him
a song, as though to a child. From time to time a large tear rolls down the sufferer’s face. I know that he will
die soon. I light a candle for him in church, praying to heaven to ease his torment. I don’t dare to ask for him
to live. And sometimes this still eats at me. My faith wasn’t strong enough to pray for the impossible.
He passes away on the 31 October. A month later they operate on Grandmama. And I understand that my
childhood is over.
MIREILLE MATHIEU

OUI JE CROIS
Abridged text of the autobiography
Translated into English
by Anna Dorofeeva

Part 2. 1966: YEAR OF LIGHT

Lux or Lanzac?
Almost as though to ease the grief at the death of Grandpapa, M. Colombe
unexpectedly gave me some news; it renewed the thread of hope which I thought cut. He
had spoken several times to one of his friends, the impresario Régis Durcourt, and with his
help achieved what I hadn’t even dared hope for. I was included as a contestant in the
contest ‘Song Parade’, which is organised by Guy Lux, and was to arrive in the capital on
20th November, on Saturday.
Tripping over my feet, I ran to my friend Françoise. For a long time I had worn a fringe,
but perhaps her mother would now be able to give me a more fashionable Parisian hairstyle
– one that would help make me look more grown up, perhaps? Françoise’s mother cuts my
hair so that locks brush against my cheeks, and a strand stands slightly upraised on the
crown of my head.
- ‘On seeing you, the Parisians will open their mouths in astonishment,’ she assures me.
Papa is of quite another opinion and asks in confusion:
- ‘Marcelle, you don’t find that she has a clownish look?’
- ‘No, of course not,’ says Mama decisively, wanting above all to lift my spirits. ‘Don’t
you remember, Roger, when Mireille went to kindergarten she also had a short cut…’
What a disaster! And I had hoped to look older! I get out my large suitcase, the same
old black dress, and my gilded cross from Lourdes. And now I’m on the train again, all
alone, taking away with me heaps of the usual advice. Soon I find myself on Rue d’Aboukir
once more in the company of Magali, who meets me at the station.
- ‘I didn’t doubt for a moment that you’d return. Let’s go! We’ll drink a cup of coffee.’
We go into the bistro at the corner. Here it is lots of fun. The café is constantly visited
by the journalists from the big building that exits on the Rue du Louvre.
- ‘Is it they who tell the latest news to the papers?’
Magali nods her head affirmatively. Why are they then so cheerful, since very often the
news are sad? Magali replies that doctors don’t cry from morning till night either, although
they have many seriously ill patients… she is absolutely delighted that this time they will
be hearing me in Olympia, the concert hall .
- ‘No, seriously, can you believe it?! Right now, on the bills out there, is the name of
Johnny Halliday. How I want to be able to go there with you!’
The only thing I understand is that I will be heard in Olympia – the castle, the palace,
the temple of Edith Piaf! I will enter the sanctuary where she herself performed only three
years ago… the mere though of it stuns me. If I dared, I would kiss the stage.
- ‘My name is Jacqueline Duforest.’
- ‘Good day, Madame Duforest.’
- ‘I work with Guy Lux.’
- ‘I know it, Madame.’
In Avignon we all knew about the show 'Song Parade'. Next to Jacqueline Duforest I
find serenity. I sense that she is ‘well planted on her feet’, as they say in our parts. She has
a cheerful face and full lips.
- ‘What will you sing for us, my chicklet?’ (That is a favourite expression of the
Parisians!)
- ‘l’Hymne à l’amour’.
Jacqueline Duforest is obviously surprised. I expected it… Mme Collière wouldn’t have
been in raptures about my choice. ‘This song is still too much for you,’ she says to me each
time. And each time I stubbornly stick to my decision. Of course, it hadn’t brought me
success at the qualifying contest in Avignon, but in my opinion it is also true that it is Piaf’s
most beautiful song, because she composed it herself, and also because the words move one
deeply.
- ‘Of whom do you think,’ Matite asked me once, ‘when you sing: ‘Je me ferais teindre
en blonde si tu me le demandais’ ('I would become blonde if you asked me to')? Of
Michel?’ I shrugged my shoulders.
- ‘Of no one. I assure you. Of no one…’
The only man who took up my thoughts is Papa, always so kind and proud of me. And
also Grandpapa. I was even afraid of bursting into tears when I sang: ‘Si un jour la vie
t’arrache à moi…’ (‘If life separates us one day…’), but I managed not to. How many tears
did I shed when he was dying; and now my eyes were completely dry. Maybe because I had
already suffered much anxiety that day? Or maybe because I chased away with all my
strength the reproach that I hadn’t dared to light him a candle and entreat him to live? Or
perhaps because then, the shade of the great Piaf was a shield to me?
- ‘Everything’s well,’ said Jacqueline Duforest. ‘And next Friday we’ll release you in
the section ‘Hopes’. Goodbye, my chicklet!’
Inside, I rejoiced.
- ‘Goodbye, Madame!’
And here she suddenly added:
- ‘Do you know who was present in the hall? Johnny Halliday himself! He’s returned
from army service. And will again perform in Olympia…’
She is obviously excited by this news. But with us, in the Mathieu family, rock music
isn’t regarded highly. If it had been Tino Rossi, this news would have kept Mama awake at
night! Perhaps it would have impressed me much more if I had known how Halliday had
reacted to my singing: ‘The little one has a wonderful voice, but the memory of Edith Piaf
is still too fresh.' But these words of his Jacqueline Duforest passed on to me much later.
The apartment on Rue d’Aboukir seems to tremble from my vocals, and suddenly the
phone rings. It is M. Colombe.
- ‘Ah, Monsieur Colombe, everything is well! I’m participating in the ‘Parade’ next
Friday. Please tell Mama that I’m leaving by the morning train tomorrow.’
- ‘No, you’re staying in Paris! Guess what’s happened?! You’re to participate in ‘Télé-
Dimanche’! Yes! Yes! In ‘Télé-Dimanche’! It will be presented by Marcillac!’
I am dumbfounded. And he, on the other end of the line, happily excited.
- ‘As soon as you left, your mother received a telegram – you’re invited to Paris, to
Théâtre 102! But they made a mistake: the telegram was addressed to Monique Mathieu,
who lives in Croix-des-Ciseaux! While the postman figured out what was what… anyway,
Roger Lanzac awaits your performance in the program ‘Game of Fortune’…’
- ‘’Game of Fortune’? When?’
- ‘I told you, immediately go to the rehearsal of ‘Télé-Dimanche’! Tomorrow we’ll all
be at our TV sets, to see how you perform! Hello! Hello! Your mother says to drink a lime
infusion tonight before bed, and the same tomorrow before performing, but then with
honey!’
I feverishly grab my music. To catch a taxi! I rush into the concert hall Théâtre 102 and
hear:
- ‘Roger! Roger! She’s here, the girl from Avignon!’
It must be the director’s assistant. He looks as though he has been waiting just for me. It
is so nice of them! Yes, but why is Roger Lanzac beside himself with rage? And his eyes
are bulging from their sockets! He explodes:
- ‘Who taught you to kill two birds with one stone? It seems you are intending to
perform in Guy Lux’s program too! Well, there could be no question of that! You’ll have to
make a choice!’
Not really understanding anything, I timidly ask:
- ‘Why?’
- ‘Because we don’t do that! You can’t perform in two shows at once!’
Where did this problem suddenly come from?! I was supposed to perform not ‘at once’,
but with a break of a few days! And besides… they hadn’t sent me any news for eight
months, except to tell me that I shouldn’t count on a performance before 1966! And was it
my fault that the two invitations had come one after the other! That was just my luck! All
these arguments whirl through my head, but I stand there without opening my mouth,
utterly shell-shocked… the nice blonde lady, who spoke to me last time, says kindly:
- ‘Don’t be disappointed! The night before the show everyone’s nerves are stretched
like strings! And so, who do you choose? Guy Lux or Lanzac?’
- ‘I would prefer to perform for both!’
She smiles:
- ‘But that’s impossible! Understand, my chicklet (ah, she calls me the same thing
Jacqueline Duforest does. It really is a favourite expression of the Parisians), they are in a
way rivals. So you’ll have to choose your camp.’
I remember the camp over which blew the standard of François the 1st, not for nothing
did I pore over history, preparing for my school certificate; but it didn’t even enter my head
that, in our time, there exist different camps on television! I am still thinking, and the
blonde lady is starting to lose her patience. In Guy Lux’s programme I would perform only
once, whereas the programme ‘Game of Fortune’ was set up the same way as our Avignon
contest ‘They sing in my quarter’: if I won a large enough number of votes, I would
perform again a week later.
- ‘I have made a choice,’ I say. ‘I will sing with you.’
- ‘Very good,’ says the blonde lady. ‘You have done the right thing!’
She send a young assistant to warn Roger Lanzac. Leaving, the youth, smiling broadly,
says:
- ‘It’ll be entertaining: the battle of the Piafs!’
Battle? In truth: thinking of what choice to make, I had completely forgotten about the
upcoming competition and that I would have a very serious opponent, who had already won
this contest four times in a row. I had seen this Georgette Lemaire on television. She was
older than me, already married, with two sons, but the poor thing wasn’t happy in her
marriage. I read in a newspaper that her husband beat her. She also sang songs from Edith
Piaf’s repertoire, and that seems natural to me: are there songs more wonderful?! I am
urged forward, I hurriedly adjust my hair and… forward! Now I’m on the film set! Each
camera resembles a spider, cables stretch from it in all directions, as though they are webs
to trap flies. ‘Hurry, hurry! Give me your music!’ I catch my foot on a wire, and the music
falls to the floor…
- ‘In what key?’ Asks the pianist.
- ‘Oh dear! I don’t know myself!’
Overhearing my answer, Roger Lanzac immediately mimics me:
- ‘Oh dear! Well, you certainly can’t say she has Piaf’s pronunciation!’
Everyone around me laughs. I go crimson to the roots of my hair. Perhaps I should have
chosen Guy Lux… Georgette Lemaire, like Edith Piaf, is Parisian, after all. But
unfortunately it’s too late. The projectors light up. There is nowhere to run.

‘Mais pour toi, Jezebel,


Je ferais le tour de la terre…’

I hear how Roger Lanzac asks the technician: ‘How are you there, is it all right?’ And,
from somewhere out of the darkness, the answer comes: ‘It’s ok’. Doubtless it means that I
have passed the trial.
- ‘You sang magnificently,’ says the blonde lady. ‘Raymond Marcillac is very pleased.’
- ‘Really? Thank you, Madame.’
- ‘Just call me Nanou.’
Nanou Taddei has a charming smile. And I have a lump in my throat and can barely
keep back tears. How I wish that Mama, and Matite, and Christiane were here…
- ‘I’m called Mimi.’
- ‘Yes, I'm sure I heard that somewhere!’
The humour in her sentence escapes my notice. I am gripped by fear. One thing, only
one thing, can calm me: prayer. Luckily, returning to the Rue d’Aboukir I see that the gate
of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires is still open. I hurriedly go to the statue of Saint Rita and light
my candle from one of the ones already burning. And at once feel easier at heart.
- ‘Release me from anxiety. Help me win… for everyone that I love, so that I can help
them as you help me…’
Magali catches me just as I am drinking my lime decoction.
- ‘Were you very nervous?’
- ‘No, it passed.’
- ‘In your place I would have died of fear!’
I don’t continue this conversation, to keep my equilibrium, and so I am not distracted
by irrelevant things. I go to bed and sleep like the dead. Because if heaven has gifted me
with a voice, it has also given me the ability to sleep deeply for a long time. And a good
sleep for me is a condition of success!
On Sunday morning, before mass, the whole family wishes me good luck on the phone.
- ‘We’ll pray for you,’ says Mama.
–’You know, Mimi, don’t be too anxious,’ adds Papa. ‘If this time you don’t succeed…
it’s no big deal. You’ll be able to start again.’
But I firmly decide to be victorious. Life hurries me. After the closure of the factory I
don’t have a full-time job. And as I’m already nineteen, it’s time to escape poverty and
release the entire Mathieu family from it! I must make it so that happiness reigns again in
our house, where sadness had moved in after the death of Grandpapa. Three years of
stubborn work with Mme Collière had planted seeds of hope in my heart. I remember that
this time I put on my black dress as though it was a holy nun's habit, and before coming
onstage made the sign of the cross as fervently as a toreador before a bullfight.
On the day of a show, if it is a live transmission, tension rises by several degrees. Back
in those times live transmissions were standard. Later, doubtlessly thanks to the
improvement of recording technology, direct programs were almost abolished, and the
unique emotional response of the viewer. I am very happy now TV is again beginning to
return to direct transmission, because then the artist performs almost without insurance.
Perhaps I give the impression of a rational person, but in reality I enjoy risks, or at least the
fight for success when it is far from guaranteed. I like winning. Most of all I like winning a
‘difficult’ audience, or one with the reputation of being difficult. I can’t handle bad luck…
even in card games (therefore Matite is convinced that I am not a real player)!
On that day, 21st November 1966, I am possessed by only one thought: I must win. I
still don’t even have an idea how hard the profession of a singer is. I can only see the goal,
there, really close. And I am almost sure that I can achieve it. At this point the make-up
artist takes my arm, sits me down, plucks a few hairs from my eyebrows and says:
- ‘We’ll have to remove the down from your arms…’
- ‘What, right now?’
- ‘No. If you’re going to perform in a dress with short sleeves…’
And now for the first time I’m on the big stage, standing alone in the light of the
projectors, the television cameras are focused on me, and, extending my hands to the
public, I experience an extraordinary, heretofore unknown to me sensation: as though I am
touching people with the tips of my fingers and offering them my heart on my palms.

‘Mais pour toi, Jezebel,


Je ferais le tour de la terre
J’irais jusqu’au fond des enfers!’

Our program is transmitted in the break of a rugby match, on Sunday television. The
hall explodes with applause, it rolls at me like a wave. Yes, this time I am sure: I have
conquered the audience. But it’s not just about those in the concert hall. All – or almost all
– of France is voting! I find sanctuary near Nanou Taddei; like me, she has tears in her
eyes. Now all there is to do is wait… but how excited, how effervescent is everyone around
us; musicians and technicians, walking past, exclaim: ‘Magnificent!’ The assistant comes
up to us and reports: ‘They are calling from everywhere, the switchboard is jammed!’
- ‘That doesn’t surprise me,’ I say to Nanou. ‘Do you know how many friends and
members of the Mathieu family alone there are?!’
I feel very light-hearted, I even what to laugh. Only one thing worries me: after my
performance Roger Lanzac lifted me above the floor – which, by the way, it is not so hard
to do – and kissed me! That must mean that his anger of yesterday had passed… but to
where has Lanzac suddenly disappeared?
- ‘He and Raymond Marcillac are awaiting the final results.’
A large man climbs backstage from the hall and asks whether I already have an agent. I
look at him blankly. An agent of what?
- ‘From now on many people will want to take charge of your affairs,’ Nanou whispers
to me. ‘Be very careful!’
I remember that Mama ordered me not to start a conversation with anyone! But here,
where everyone hugs and kisses each other, it is not so easy. The young assistant returns,
choking with laughter:
- ‘There are some people who are calling to ask whether we transmitted a recording of
Piaf’s voice!’
I don’t understand what he’s talking about, and Nanou explains to me what a recording
is. I am flattered, but all the same I’m also disappointed: that means there are people who
don’t believe it was me singing! A tall man pushes his way through the crowd towards me.
I recognise at once this giant with bushy sideburns, blue eyes and the walk of a cowboy…
He bends down to me, takes my hands in his and asks:
- ‘Do you recognise me?’
Do I recognise him! Johnny Stark! If I dared, I would say to him that he is a devious
scoundrel! I awaited his letter for so many months!
- ‘Didn’t you promise to write?!’
- ‘I was extremely busy… but just now I was sitting by my television… you have a
wonderfully transmitted, photogenic image. I jumped up: it’s her, that little girl from
Avignon! As usual on a Sunday, I was in a dressing gown to relax. I quickly changed,
rushed to the concert hall, and voilà, here I am. And now let’s continue our previous
conversation…’
I can barely keep from laughing. With him you feel as though you are watching a funny
movie!
- ‘So does this mean, Mademoiselle Mathieu, that you still want to be a singer?’
- ‘I am already a singer.’
- ‘Come! Not quite yet… you merely sing. And that isn’t the same thing. To be a singer
is very, very difficult. I don’t think that you have any idea how difficult. But if you have
enough courage…’
- ‘Yes, I have enough.’
- ‘She is the eldest of thirteen children,’ Nanou enters the conversation.
- ‘Yes, I know, I just heard about it… but if I take her in hand, I will be the eldest! And
I will be the commander! Do you have a cat o'nine tails at home?’
I reply, laughing:
- ‘No. We’ve never had one!’
- ‘Well, perhaps I’ll find one somewhere!’
I laugh even louder. He goes to find Roger Lanzac.
- ‘Oh, if Johnny Stark has decided to ‘take you in hand’… that is very good luck,’ says
Nanou, ‘because he is a true professional. Through his hands have passed Yves Montand,
Mariano, Tino Rossi, Line Renaud, Johnny Halliday…’
She, Line Renaud, a famous singer, invited by Raymond Marcillac himself, is also here
– I see that Johnny is talking to her animatedly.
- ‘You seem to know M. Stark very well?’
- ‘Quite well,’ replies Nanou. ‘He’s my ex-husband.’
Right at this moment there is a hubbub a few metres away. The final results have been
arrived on… my mouth goes dry. What is it? How did I go?
- ‘You’ll perform again next week,’ a young assistant throws at me, rushing by.
That’s it! I won! If I could I’d kiss the stage! Roger Lanzac goes to the centre of the
scene and before the light of the projectors announces a very rare occurrence on the
program ‘Game of Fortune’.
- ‘Georgette Lemaire and Mireille Mathieu have received the same amount of votes…’
So that means next Sunday both of us will perform again. It’s not yet a full victory. I
am pleased and yet disenchanted… the ‘cowboy’ again comes up to me.
- ‘So, mademoiselle from Avignon, are you happy?’
- ‘Not quite. I’ll have to start everything over again…’
- ‘Exactly! In your profession you’ll constantly have to start things over again. And if
you haven’t yet understood it, it’s better to quit now.’
I shake my head in denial. I want to be a singer.
- ‘In that case I’ll have to see your parents,’ says the ‘cowboy’. ‘We’ll go to Avignon
together.’
- ‘But I already have a return ticket for tomorrow, for the morning train…’
I dig in my handbag and take out my second-class ticket. He smiles:
- ‘If you don’t mind, mademoiselle, we’ll leave a little bit later… and in the sleeping
wagon, via the Blue express.’
The Blue express… yes, I had heard of it. Was it really blue? I begin to imagine that
‘the cowboy’ takes me away with him to the kingdom of dreams…
Then I didn’t know that my new life would last for many years… as I didn’t know that
it wouldn’t always seem like a dream!

We didn’t leave the next day. Because my photograph appeared on the front page of the
newspaper France-Soir: I stand before the microphone in my black dress with the muslin
sleeves, and sing. It’s even possible to make out a small medallion from Notre-Dame-de-
Lourdes which Papa gave to me, saying:
- ‘It’s gilded… and it will bring you good luck.’
And truly it had brought me luck.
- ‘Hello! Is that you, Mama?’
- ‘Yes! I’m calling from the drug store! We all saw you, you looked such a dear! But
how are we to understand your telegram? You’re not leaving immediately?’
- ‘No, Mama, I’m coming tomorrow with Monsieur Stark. He wants to help me with
my career! And therefore wants to see Papa.’
- ‘Oh dear! Poor Roger, how should I warn him! Right now he’s at the cemetery,
scraping the gravestone of Agathe-Rosalie, it’s grown over with moss!
- ‘You’ll have enough time, Mama, we’re only coming tomorrow! But you must buy
today’s France-Soir, I’m on the front page.’
- ‘The paper hasn’t been delivered to the city yet. Where should we look for you?’
- ‘I told you, on the front page. Right below the announcement about General de
Gaulle!’
- ‘That’s impossible!’
I hear how in the drug store they pass each other the message: ‘Her picture was placed
right under the announcement about General de Gaulle!’
I continue explaining:
- ‘You’ll see – right below the title there is a long article. That’s why General de Gaulle
didn’t appear on television… the election campaign… today Mitterrand… etc. And a little
bit lower you’ll read: ‘Mireille, a young songstress of ‘Télé-Dimanche’, and next to it my
photograph!’
- ‘Was there a photo of General de Gaulle as well?’
- ‘No, there isn’t a photo of General de Gaulle…’
From the other end of the line I hear Mama’s voice, she’s explaining to those in the
store: ‘Her photograph was printed, but they didn’t put in a photo of General de Gaulle’.
- ‘What do they write about you?’
- ‘Listen, I’m reading it out: ‘Seeming especially fragile in her black dress, nineteen-
year-old Mireille Mathieu, who is only a metre fifty tall, surprised the viewers of ‘Télé-
Dimanche’ yesterday by singing in an unexpectedly powerful voice the song ‘Jezebel’. She
is leaving today by train to Avignon, where – in a cheap, run-down house – she is awaited
by twelve brothers and sisters, a mother who is exhausted by life and a stonemason
father…’
- ‘Did you tell them I was exhausted by life?’
- ‘I only told them you had thirteen children.’
- ‘I don't think that ‘a mother exhausted by life’ sounds very coherent! And that’s all?’
- ‘No. ‘They wait for her... to do the laundry, the dishes and other domestic tasks…’
Matite takes the receiver:
- ‘And what am I doing then?!’
- ‘You’re helping me! I couldn’t mention everyone! And I also told them: ‘I would like
to again perform on ‘Télé-Dimanche’, become rich and help the poor…’
- ‘You said that? And they printed it in the newspaper?’
In Avignon there is silence, then I hear the voice of my sister:
- ‘Listen, Mimi… Mama has started crying. She can’t talk with you any more. I’m
hanging up, this call will already cost a lot…’
In Magali’s little apartment there is also silence. I’m sniffing, I blow my nose, swallow
tears, I must breathe, there isn’t enough air.
- ‘Well, you need to take a break,’ says Johnny Stark, who has brought me a heap of
newspapers. ‘The office of France-Soir is two steps away. It will be very nice if you come
to thank them. Because, hopefully, they are not printing the name of Mireille Mathieu for
the last time!’
The office is at arms’ length away… but downstairs we are awaited by a chauffeured
car. Stark asks him to stop at the first florist’s. I look at him with some surprise: does he
want to give me flowers? The ‘cowboy’ explains that the flowers aren’t for me at all, but
for those who work at the paper. I obviously don’t realise that they did me a big favour,
placing my photograph on the front page. So it would be quite correct for me to give them a
small present...
I have never in my life seen such an enormous car. It is possible to stretch out to your
full height in it. You only need to press a button – and the glass in the windows comes
down by itself. It has a radio and even a telephone.
- ‘Does it work?’
- ‘Of course it works!’
- ‘Could I call Mama?’
- ‘I don’t see much point in it, you’ve only just spoken to her.’
At the florist’s Stark offers for me to choose what suits my taste. I am lost. How am I
supposed to know what flowers journalists like? The cabinets in that huge building are,
perhaps, the same as in our town hall. And the workers at the town hall like it when they
have some kind of potted plant… for example, a pretty heather like that which Papa plants
in the cemetery…
- ‘Oh, no!’ Declares Stark. ‘A pretty young lady, who has successfully performed in
front of ten million TV viewers, does not come out of a Mercedes with a flower pot in her
arms, as though she is about to celebrate All Saints’! She appears with an armful of the
most magnificent flowers! Madame, prepare for us a large bouquet, in light tones.’
- ‘Shall I bind them with a ribbon?’
- ‘No, a ribbon isn’t necessary. Let the bouquet be modest and attractive, like herself.’
- ‘I recognised her at once,’ says the florist. ‘It’s the little girl from Avignon! I will
watch you sing next Sunday as well. And I’ll call, too, so that you are given the victory!
Could you give me your autograph and photo?’
- ‘She’ll send you her photograph in a few days. The shots aren’t ready yet.’
When I enter the vestibule of the building of France-Soir with a bouquet in my arms
and accompanied by a tall ‘cowboy’, I as happy as a newly-wed. Wasn’t I beginning a
completely new life?
On the wall between two elevators there is a huge engraved board, like the beautiful
grave plinths in our cemetery. I read the inscription carved on it: ‘For several centuries this
place was called the Court of Miracles…’
- ‘Do you know what the Court of Miracles was?’ Asks M. Stark.
I feel as though I am again sitting the exam for the school certificate. In my head, faint
memories stir.
- ‘Wasn’t it here that the poor assembled in the Middle Ages?’
And suddenly I start laughing. It’s not so much laughter as loud guffaws: I sometimes
laughed like that in the past, and then no one could remain serious. In the ‘cowboy’s’ blue
eyes I read amazement. The thing is that I suddenly remembered our Avignon-Chicago.
Mama would often say: ‘This is the true Court of Miracles!’ And now the fact that I was
climbing the marble steps of the building of France-Soir seemed to me the embodiment of
a miracle.
- ‘The poor really did meet there, but mainly it was tramps,’ Stark corrected me.
‘Swindlers, pretending to be poor, blind, crippled. The police finally banished them from
there, but it happened not in the Middle Ages, but during the reign of Louis XIV!’
In the section of spectacles and entertainment everyone knows Stark. He enters the
room like a cowboy enters a bar. The setting is casual. A young blonde lady receives the
bouquet from me and thanks me warmly. Soon I find out that she, Mme Fleury, plays a not
unimportant role here, but since we are the same height, I feel at ease.
- ‘You are called Monique, like my sister, isn’t that right? But I always call her
Matite…’
- ‘Just imagine! Your Southern accent is even more obvious when you speak than when
you sing!’
Mme Fleury is the replacement of the organiser of the chief of the spectacles, Willy
Guiboud. He appears in the doorway of his office, and, looking at me fixedly with black
eyes, exclaims:
- ‘So here’s the little monster!’
Seeing that I am astonished, he adds:
- ‘Didn’t you know that Johnny pays attention only to monsters? Strictly to unusual
ones, naturally.’
I am completely out of my league. For the first time in my life I have met with a
Parisian wit, and moreover, one of the most caustic. Afterwards I find out that he can be the
most loyal friend, but now he inspires in me only fear. Johnny and Willy exchange remarks,
the meaning of which escapes me, but which in them provoke loud laughter. Suddenly the
phone rings, and the secretary, who has a boy’s crew-cut and never for a moment takes a
cigar out of her mouth, says:
- ‘You can go up. Pierre is waiting for you.’
As we’re going up the stairs, Johnny Stark explains to me:
- ‘We’ll now be received by the owner of France-Soir – Monsieur Pierre Lazareff. You
know well the saying about him: Cinque colonnes à la Une.’
- ‘My God! I’ll have something to tell Mama! The secretary calls the newspaper’s
owner by his given name! They’re so friendly, these Parisians…’
M. Stark moderates my enthusiasm:
- ‘ I like to give nicknames, and the secretary Jacqueline Coutellier I call ‘Couteau’
[knife]: when people who she thinks don’t deserve her attention call, she brusquely cuts off
the conversation! So things aren't always as nice or friendly as you think’
The office of M. Lazareff is larger than all the rooms occupied by our family in Croix-
des-Oiseaux put together; but he himself is small, and that reassures me. Basically, I feel
calm either among short people, because they don’t inspire fear in me, or among extremely
tall people, such as my ‘cowboy’, because with them I feel safe. Now I understand why the
workers call their boss simply Pierre. You want to call him by name, because you at once
get the feeling that you have known him for a long time. He lifts his glasses onto his
forehead, perhaps to better see me close up. And asks M. Stark what news of Johnny (I
understand that he is talking about Johnny Halliday); the former replies that everything is
going well: Halliday performed in Olympia with great success.
- ‘I wish the same for this little one, if her parents agree to entrust her to me. Just now
she mixes up the Middle Ages with the reign of Louis XIV… although I have to allow for
the fact that at fourteen she was already working in a factory.’
- ‘That’s not so bad. I was only educated for a year longer than you,’ says M. Lazareff
to me. ‘I left school at fifteen.’
So there! And he became the owner of the largest newspaper in France! I smile at him
in as friendly a manner as I can.
- ‘You can catch up later… it’s all to do with memory. Do you have a good memory?'’ I
nod my head, afraid to give an affirmative answer out loud, wary of a trick question. And it
comes: the paper’s owner asks whether I remember what was on last week’s front page…
- ‘Please excuse me, m’sieur, but at that hour the children are already in bed, and as the
eldest I have to set an example…’
- ‘They have thirteen children in the family,’ puts in Johnny Stark.
- ‘I know, I know, I do read my own paper,’ answers M. Lazareff in his quiet but sharp
voice. ‘She is well brought up,’ he adds. And again addresses me:
- ‘If you decide to be a singer, you’ll have to change your daily schedule!’
- ‘I believe that she’ll be a famous singer yet,’ declares Johnny Stark, understanding
that the interview was coming to an end.
- ‘Yes, if only she isn’t eaten by the jackals,’ M. Lazareff laughs, and then adds: ‘If you
win, we’ll write your story in detail. It’s very educational, very humanistic!’
- ‘If it’s possible, she’d like to see how the newspaper is made, it interests her very
much.’
That was true, I had asked that question while still in the car. And so we are on the
fourth storey, in the room which is called such a strange name – ‘marble’… this word
provokes in my memory the image of the graveyard, where my poor grandfather worked
with Papa. They explain that this name comes from the stone tables on which lie very
heavy typographical moulds. At my appearance the work stops and I hear voices from
everywhere: ‘It’s little Mireille from Avignon’ and ‘it’s the new little Piaf’… here there is
the same sharp smell that was present at the envelope-making factory… I am led to the
printing mould, on it there is assembled the future page about entertainment… but it has to
be read from right to left!
- ‘Would you like to see the latest proof?’ I am asked by the printer.
He takes a sheet of paper, smoothes it over the type… and gives me the printed text. I
am the first reader who finds out that the theatre Gaîté-Lyrique, closed for the last three
years, has a new director… the proof-reader reads the article, correcting - here a letter, there
a comma - and the assembler, armed with pincers, removes the unnecessary comma,
working as carefully as a make-up artist who is plucking an unneeded hair. I watch,
mesmerised.
I am approached by another assembler, who holds in his palms a sheet of lead: ‘Your
name is assembled here,’ he says, ‘from this it was transferred onto the front page of the
paper.’
I read it from right to left, and the leaden type sparkles as though it is silver. If I had
dared, I would have asked for this metal strip, to make a brooch out of it!
Yes, now I am absolutely certain: I will put all the strength of my soul into my new
profession.
- ‘Next time,’ I tell the assembler, ‘you will assemble my name… using letters this big!’
And I open my arms wide. Everyone around me laughs, I loudest of all, but in reality I
don’t feel like being merry. I am so wound up that I would have gladly walked home –
since it’s only two hundred metres to Rue d’Aboukir. But Monsieur Stark makes me go in
the car.
- ‘A famous singer doesn’t walk, and if she's a future celebrity, all the more: she risks
getting lost in the crowd.’
I ask who Pierre Lazareff meant when he mentioned ‘jackals’. Stark tells me not to
worry beforehand: as soon as he finds out about the approach of a jackal, he will warn me
at once!
- ‘You think that we’re taking too long to get to Rue d’Aboukir? That’s because in
places the streets are closed!’
It’s not easy for me to talk with the ‘cowboy’, because I never know when he’s serious
and when he’s joking. And it’s still so…
In reality we arrive in Neuilly and stop before a very beautiful house. Stark put a key
into the lock.
- ‘Here’s mademoiselle Mathieu!’ He announces loudly.
In the doorway appears an elegantly dressed blonde lady.
- ‘This is Nicole Stark, my wife.’
I am stunned: the whole room is covered in carpet. I have never seen anything like it in
my life. This sky-blue carpet is as thick as the furs that, yesterday, were on Line Renaud. I
barely dare to step on such luxury. Everywhere on the wall there are paintings. I can’t take
my eyes from them. Oh! A really young dancer in a ballet group!
- ‘You like art?’ Asks Mme Stark.
- ‘That’s the spitting image of Fanchon, the daughter of Mme Julien, my school
teacher.’
- ‘That’s not Mme Julien, that’s Degas.’
- ‘Degas? Who is she?’
In amazement I come closer.
- ‘Wonderful…’ growls the ‘cowboy’. ‘I can see I’ll have a lot of work to do!’
A little girl flies into the room like a whirlwind and jumps at him. Now I am even more
amazed: never have I seen such straw-coloured hair, it is almost white. It turns out M. Stark
has a wife and little daughter. Very good. It seems that he spoils her.
- ‘She is called Vincence,’ he says, and explains:
- ‘If she was a boy, she’d have been Vincent.’
- ‘The name ‘Vincent’ is common in our parts,’ I remark.
- ‘But I am also from your parts,’ he says. ‘From Cannes.’
I don’ want to argue with him, but Cannes isn’t Avignon!
He tells his wife that I am a very naive girl, since I followed him without fear.
- ‘I could have turned out to be worse than Bluebeard!’
I can’t keep from laughing:
- ‘Mama didn’t even let me begin a conversation with a stranger, but you, Monsieur
Stark, are far from strange!’
I trusted him completely. I tell him that I thought he was American, and after the gala-
concert of Enrico Macias call him ‘cowboy’ in my thoughts. Now it is his turn to laugh.
- ‘Stark is my family name,’ he says. ‘Until I was eleven I lived in Corsica, then in the
South of France –at first in Cagnes, but then I moved to Cannes. But my great-grandfather
in his time went to Texas and bred horses there.’
- ‘Then I’m not mistaken, he at least was a cowboy!’
I rejoice… M. Stark is full of contradictions, but with each minute I find him more
likeable.
- ‘Madame, food is served,’ says a maid, coming in.
And now we sit in the large dining room, on the table-cloth there are silver utensils, just
like those that were in the home of my ill-fated friend Roseline… but why are there so
many knives next to each plate? Three of them. One looks like a little shovel; however, the
maid removes it at once, although it is perfectly clean. M. Stark watches me.
- ‘That was a fish knife. And to eat both fish and meat with the same knife isn’t
acceptable.’
- ‘At home there’s no fear of that: we serve either fish or meat, but more often just
potatoes!’
- ‘Is it really true that you have twelve brothers and sisters?’ Asks Vincence. ‘You are
very lucky!’
- ‘It’s impossible to have everything,’ says her father. ‘If you had a dozen brothers and
sisters you’d have much fewer dolls, and your toys would have to be shared by everyone!’
Afterwards we look into Vincence’s room… it is all pink, and the girl lives in it alone,
surrounded by many soft toy animals. She is quite tall for her eight years and looks so nice
in her puffy-sleeved dress (it is all covered in bows and lace) and delicate shoes… I tell her
that she is very pretty, she replies that I am pretty too, and asks:
- ‘Why are you all in black?’
I could have told her that it was my only dress, but another, more correct answer comes
into my head:
- ‘That’s because my grandfather died a month ago…’
The answer is so truthful that, uttering these words, I remember the suffering on
Grandpapa’s face, and…
Mme Stark is unhappy: I have been driven to tears.
- ‘Please excuse me…’
When I was still really little, Mama taught me to excuse myself in time: ‘When you
don’t know what to answer, when you have done something stupid, when you have done
what you should not have, when you have behaved badly… at once ask to be excused, and
you will be forgiven. Those who are polite are always pardoned, those who aren’t – never.’
M. Stark lifts his eyebrows:
- ‘Let her cry, it brings relief. These last two day she has gone through so much. If
anything, she is good at worrying. You know, my dear Mimi, by her ability to worry is how
a true artist is recognised!’
Thus he gave me my first lesson. And immediately came the second: to calm one’s
nerves there is no better medicine than sleep. And he drives me home, because tomorrow,
in Avignon, I have to appear before my parents looking my very best…
I had seen the Blue express go by… but I had never been inside! The sleeping wagon is
a real wonder, here everything is covered in velvet, and therefore the compartment for four
people resembles a drawing-room. With us comes a very nice, tall man, hung with bags.
- ‘That’s a famous photographer,’ Stark says to me.
- ‘Will he be photographing you?’
- ‘Me – not likely, I’m not good-looking enough for that!’
What a strange person he is, M. Stark! He jokes all the time. The photographer keeps on
clicking, aiming the camera at me, and I don’t know how to hold myself.
- ‘Don’t pay him any attention, pretend he isn’t here at all.’
But it’s not so much the photographer as the fact that I am bothered by a thought which
I eventually express:
- ‘What if I lose next week?’
M. Stark reassures me: why should I fail and suffer a loss if I had already overtaken my
opponent? Now I don’t understand anything. Don’t the words ‘received the same number of
votes’ mean that we had finished the competition as equals?
- ‘All in all, that’s true,’ he replies. ‘But all the same, you have overtaken her by fifteen
points.’
Is he joking again? Or is he saying it to encourage me? Stark explains that the contest
organisers were doubtlessly seeking to arouse more interest for the show. They didn’t want
the competition to finish, and this way the expectation of the outcome had raised tensions.
It’s not every day that a singer, having come first for five weeks in a row and winning the
warm sympathy of the viewers, lets herself be overtaken at the finish line by a girl who has
come out of nowhere.
- ‘Next Sunday eighteen million people will be sitting in front of their TVs, wanting to
know who will win: the girl from Avignon or Georgette Lemaire. Anything can happen:
what if you collapse under the pressure?’
Oh, no! I won’t let myself collapse! It is my destiny, our destiny, that is being decided. I
must conquer poverty… and with me – all of the Mathieus! I need a victory. And I am
certain that I will have one!
The cowboy and the stonemason

When we arrive home, M. Stark’s eyes go round in amazement. There’s nothing to say:
our small apartment is much too cramped for such a large family. All the children are
grouped around Papa. He has put on his blue Sunday suit, and as usual he has a hat on his
head. On one side of the table are all the Mathieus, on the other – completely alone - the
‘cowboy’, and I have found a space at the side.
- ‘It resembled a scene from a film,’ Matite told me later.
The picture was, in any case, unforgettable…
Papa begins the conversation:
- ‘It’s very kind of you, Monsieur Stark, to take an interest in our little Mireille. You
must believe that she is worth it. You don’t meet someone like Mimi very often. She has
the rarest voice! And she inherited it from me…’
- ‘That’s true, my husband has the voice of an opera singer,’ says Mama, putting a
carafe of aniseed vodka on the table!
M. Stark listens quietly. The children know Papa’s opinion well (they hear it almost
every evening, when Papa sits by the television; sometimes, for example, he expresses it
like this: ‘In comparison with that singer Mimi is a perfect Callas!’), and so they begin to
chase each other, emitting the Indians’ battle cry.
- ‘Matite! Christiane! Look after the children! Mimi has more important things to do!’
M. Stark joins in the conversation:
- ‘Yes, the voice of your daughter, Monsieur Mathieu, can be compared to a diamond,
but it isn’t polished, it needs to be cut and shaped. Yes, she has all the talents necessary to
achieve success, but you know yourself that natural talent is not nearly everything. For a
successful career it is such a small thing (here he shows the nail on his little finger). The
most important thing is work. And its role is this big (and he points at his extended arm). It
isn’t an easy thing to be a singer.’
- ‘I know it, Monsieur Stark. But my daughter is a good worker. She will make every
effort necessary.’
- ‘An effort’s an effort, but even this isn’t all, Monsieur Mathieu. She needs to have
perfect control over her voice, her body, her movements, and all this she has yet to learn.’
The boys surround M. Stark:
- ‘Hurrah, a cowboy! Hurrah, a cowboy!’
I redden with embarrassment:
- ‘Don’t take offence with them, Monsieur Stark. Here at home we love films about
cowboys!’
- ‘On the contrary, I am flattered!’
- ‘Here’s a cowboy! Here’s a cowboy!’ Shout Régis and Guy.
- ‘So these are your twins?!’ Says M. Stark with a smile.
Mama first gave birth to five girls, and then five boys in a row.
- ‘And now we’re alternating: another girl, then another boy!’ Says Papa, as usual filled
with pride as soon as the conversation turns to his progeny.
- ‘Yes, you’ve got it well organised,’ jokes M. Stark and adds, turning to Mama: ‘But
you must have a lot of work, Madame. Accept my compliments – it is so clean here that
one could eat off the floor!’
- ‘How did you like my aniseed vodka, Monsieur Stark? I keep it for special occasions,
but it is very easy to make; if you liked it, I could give you the recipe. You just take a litre
of forty-degree vodka…’
- ‘Marcelle!’ Papa interrupts her. ‘We need to discuss important things!’
- ‘… fifty well-ground aniseeds, half a kilo of sugar, some cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg
skin… and let it ferment for five-six weeks. But perhaps you don’t know what nutmeg skin
is?’
- ‘Me, not know what it is?!’ Exclaims M. Stark with a Southern accent. ‘Madame, I am
a chef from Cannes!’
He has obviously scored a point in his favour.
- ‘You can cook!’ Mama is delighted.
- ‘Yes, Madame, if the Lord sees fit to prolong all our lives, then one fine day I’ll invite
you to try my bouillabaisse and my omelette with truffles! And our Mireille, can she cook?’
I hang my head:
- ‘Mainly I wash the dishes and help around the house…’
- ‘We have very simple food,’ adds Papa.
And here the twins, as though on purpose, start to sing:

Les patates, ça épate,


Les lentilles sont gentilles…

- ‘Okay, stop your rhyming!’ Rumbles Papa. ‘Or you’ll be taken for idiots!’
M. Stark changes the topic of the conversation.
- ‘Do you have time right now, Monsieur Mathieu? Then perhaps we’ll all have lunch
together in the restaurant L’Ermitage?’
L’Ermitage for us is the same as the Blue express: we often go past it, but it never came
into our heads that we would one day go in. That restaurant is considered one of the best in
the city.
- ‘I think I’ll stay home with the little ones…’
- ‘No, Madame. I said ‘all together’. How many of us are there?’
Lunch at L’Ermitage will be remembered by the Mathieu family for a long time.
- ‘Not even on the day of our wedding, Roger, did we eat so well!’ Mama enthuses.
For the first time in her life she eats in a large restaurant. Impressed by the unfamiliar
setting, the babies are quiet. And I have butterflies in my stomach: my fate is being
decided! Monsieur Stark says that no one should under any circumstances think that
Mireille is close to her goal: she has successfully performed in Avignon, but when a
debutante sings before the inhabitants of her home city, she is almost guaranteed success.
She achieved a victory in the first round of Télé-Dimanche, but even this means little. She
has many trials ahead of her…
- ‘If she has firmly decided to be a singer,’ he declares, ‘then each time she comes
onstage she has to fight for a victory. In my opinion, she is a brave girl, and she’ll have to
remain one to the end. If I agree to become the manager of her performing career, I won’t
allow the smallest weakness on her part!’
I am not afraid either of the battles to come, nor of M. Stark, whom Rémi over dessert
was already calling uncle Jo. I was dreading something else – the necessity to leave
home… I had thought (this was, of course, naive) that I would still live here… perhaps in
another, better-built quarter, if I earned enough money. But together with my relatives. I
thought I would sing here and there, perform on TV, from time to time I would have to
spend a day or so in Paris to make a recording. I hadn’t realised… however, M. Stark was
categorical.
- ‘She will have to live in Paris, but not with her friend on Rue d’Aboukir. It is
necessary for her to have her own apartment and nothing to worry about: she needs to think
only of her vocation. She’ll need instructors, different kinds of instructors… she needs to
learn a lot! If you agree, then uncle Jo will take charge of her career. While we’re looking
for a suitable apartment, I’ll keep her at my house, she’ll live there with my wife and
daughter. And we’ll begin polishing that diamond. But it’s not at all easy to do that, it’s a
very difficult job. I’m sorry if I’m repeating myself. But it’s necessary for you all to
understand what’s coming beforehand.’
- ‘You know, Monsieur Stark, I left home because I was going to war. She is also
awaited by a war, but not such a sad one! And she’s our ‘brave soldier’!’
Once, Doctor Monoret had called me that. It seems that that's how it is.
- ‘I don’t doubt it, Monsieur Mathieu. But if she wants to become a general, she
shouldn’t be afraid of wounds!’
I laugh with everyone else, not yet understanding what kinds of wounds he means.
- ‘If you agree, I’ll order a contract to be drawn up, but you’ll need to sign it, Monsieur
Mathieu, since Mireille is still underage. For maximum security, show the contract to one
of your close friends…’
- ‘Yes, I’ll show it to M. Colombe. It was he, as the head of the Avignon Festivals
Committee, who supported Mireille and sent her to Paris. Do you know him?’
- ‘Monsieur Raoul Colombe? Yes, I know him. We even had a small
misunderstanding.’
My parents and I look at each other with alarm.
- ‘Oh, it’s nothing serious. It happened two years ago. Johnny Halliday, whose affairs I
was representing then, neglected to come to one of the gala-concerts in Avignon, and
Monsieur Colombe sued us. He lost the case, without much pleasure, of course.’
I am astonished: M. Colombe sued M. Stark! Just imagine! In France there are
thousands of committees which organise different concerts, and thousands of managers!
And it should happen with two people I know!
- ‘It’s not that it was about a whim of Halliday’s – by the way, I don’t let caprices pass.
He really did fall off a horse when he was shooting the film ‘Where are you from,
Johnny?’. Why are you suddenly gloomy, my dear Mireille? In our profession there are
often small conflicts, but they are always solved. We are all a bit like one big family!’
He has found the right words to calm me. And continues his tale about Johnny Halliday,
who is ‘simply made for the stage’.
- ‘He inspired liking not only in me, but in every single spectator, and it happened five
years ago in Alhambra. He’s irresistible… but one can’t take one’s attention away from
him from morning to night, or more correctly from evening to morning, and the whole
trouble was that he can sleep until midday, while I have to be in my office by morning!’
Monsieur Stark tells everything in such an engaging manner! Now he’s talking about
Mama’s idol, Tino Rossi.
- ‘You want to know how I met Tino? It happened on a yacht which was standing on
anchor in the harbour at Cannes. It belongs to one of my friends, a well-known lawyer.
Besides me there were two guests on the yacht – Tino Rossi and his partner Mireille Balin,
whom he then preferred to others…’
- ‘Ah yes! ‘Naples. Fiery kisses…’’
- ‘What? Have you seen it, Madame Mathieu?’
- ‘No. Only the posters.’
- ‘Mireille Balin was a beautiful creature. We all stood on the deck, preparing to drink a
glass of wine. She was very pretty. She had no need to take care of her appearance. But you
know women: she takes out her compact powder, and – flop! – it slides from her hands and
into the water. And that compact was studded with diamonds.’
- ‘Real ones?’
- ‘Real ones.’
- ‘My God!’
- ‘Just so, Monsieur Mathieu. And then a certain Stark, who was then very young, not
bad-looking and who liked to show off, without wasting a second, throws off his trousers,
and, wearing only swimming trunks, hop! plunges into the water! I was very lucky. The
compact could have sunk deep into the silt. But it awaited me very kindly at a depth of five
metres. I appeared on the surface again, holding the compact up in triumph. And then Tino,
in his most melodious voice, says: ‘Well, we must admit you know how to swim!’ Since
then we’ve always liked each other. Soon after, the war started. When peace was restored
and I returned unhurt, I came to Tino and he entrusted me with organising his tours.’
Papa can’t pretend to be indifferent when war is mentioned. He questions Stark, who
delights him, relating how he went to war as a volunteer and was sent to South Africa:
- ‘I was seventeen years old, I went with my regiment behind the American army, and
there I saw front-line theatre performances. It was then that I acquired my passion for my
present profession… by the way, my father was a gardener. He moved to the town of
Cagnes and all his life grew new kinds of flowers in his glasshouses. He managed to grow a
variety of sweet pea with a strong aroma, which had never been seen before!’
- ‘I would also gladly work with flowers!’ I cry.
- ‘When did you seriously begin your career, Monsieur Stark?’
- ‘Fifteenth of August 1946 in Cannes, at the age of twenty-two. I prepared ‘The Night
of Famous Singers’, and the bill did not lie. In the concert participated Edith Piaf, Yves
Montand and Marcel Cerdan, who in those times didn’t part from Piaf. My friend Roland
Toutain opened the programme – it took place at the stadium of the Hespérides – by
seemingly descending from the skies: he was hanging by a leg from a helicopter! It was
very effective, but it cost a pile of money, so I had to pay a million of the old franks. It was
my entire savings! The lesson was harsh, but it taught me the rule of the profession. You
lose some, you win some. I think that if you accept my proposal about Mireille, we’ll win!’
And then he orders the champagne Cristal Rosé – his favourite, he explains.
- ‘Tell me, Monsieur Mathieu, could I ask you an indelicate question? Your hat suits
you, in it you resemble the famous American choreographer Gene Kelly. But why do you
never take it off?’
- ‘I don’t suffer from any complexes,’ said Papa, ‘so I will gladly reveal the secret to
you: I lost my hair early on; but I still feel twenty years old! My wife ages, but I don’t!’
Everyone laughs. Mama puts her index finger to her lips…
- ‘So that our wives never become widows!’ Announces uncle Jo, lifting his wine glass.
We had never even seen pink champagne before. Some froth spills onto the tablecloth.
- ‘Everyone touch it, it brings good luck!’
The little ones smudge the froth on the end of their noses, even Béatrice receives her
share: her little earlobe, resembling a tiny pink shell, is dampened with it.
- ‘And what about Mimi, sorry, mademoiselle Mathieu?’ Asks uncle Jo…
At night I lie in my usual spot – on the wide girls’ bed, next to Matite and Christiane.
Mama comes to talk a little before sleep. We are all slightly shellshocked.
- ‘Where is the ‘cowboy’ sleeping?’ Asks Réjane.
- ‘He’s no cowboy,’ says Mama sternly, ‘you have already forgotten the pink
champagne! He’s a true gentleman! And like all gentlemen passing through Avignon, he’s
spending the night in the Hôtel de l’Europe!’
A true gentleman… in twenty years of working together, I often heard Johnny Stark
called that. Called that because of his personal glamour, his splendid way of receiving
guests, his ability to make the maitre d’ serve him particularly respectfully, for giving
generous tips to some and expensive presents to others; but he was a strict gentleman,
unusually demanding, believing in punctuality being the hallmark of a king, and therefore
not accepting even a minute’s delay; he was distinguished by a phenomenal memory, which
allowed him never to forget the slightest insult nor the slightest favour; thanks to that he
was a convivial guest, possessed an inexhaustible supply of interesting stories and, like no
other, was known for his sense of humour. He always remembered who liked whom and
what, and could imitate any manner of speech, perhaps because he had travelled the world
over. He could play masterful tricks on people on the phone. Even the most experienced
celebrities were taken in by his imagined personas (a certain impresario from Argentina
promises mountains of gold, or an Arabian sheikh, possessing an entire harem, declares
himself a passionate fan…), at least while the conversation lasted. But one shouldn’t
always take his jokes for real. When he, to use his own expression, ‘acts stupid’, it is often
to hide his anxiety, unease, his problems, which he doesn’t confide even to those closest to
him. It took a lot of time for me to understand him, and I myself am a very secretive kind of
person; when I met Stark I had no experience in judging people, but I at once entrusted
myself to him. I, so naturally shy, wasn’t frightened either of his enormous height, nor of
the red birth mark on his left cheek, nor of his voice, which he raises threateningly when he
really is beside himself or is only pretending to be angry.
- ‘Johnny…? He’s the best person in the world!’ Says to me Nanou Taddei.
I meet her again during Télé-Dimanche: I still have five weeks in which I must battle
with the other contestants. She tries to support everyone, leads us to the pianist who in
rehearsals accompanies us all. But I imagine that she feels a touching sympathy for the
‘little girl from Avignon’. She invites me to have lunch with her. Entering the apartment, I
first of all smell not the aroma of tasty dishes, but that of perfumes… the scent is
everywhere. And they way to my heart, it could be said, lies through my sense of smell! My
delight amuses Nanou, and she offers for me to choose one of the bottles of eau de toilette
which stand in her bathroom. My first ever perfume! This gift cements our friendship.
That is why at the table I dare to ask why she is no longer Madame Stark, since she
speaks so warmly of him. She explains to me: that’s life, and the only person who can
understand Stark’s personality is one who knows that at the age of thirteen he lost his
mother, a still-young woman (she was only thirty-three years old). He worshipped the tall,
beautiful woman, who was kind and intuitive. After her death the boy, formerly tame as a
lamb, became angry, like a young wolf; he became the leader of the street urchins,
unusually clever and resourceful; the scamp did everything he wanted to, he grew long hair
when hippies didn’t even exist! He was often kicked out of school because he harrassed the
girls!
- ‘I think he always searched for in a woman that tenderness that was characteristic of
his mother… to fall in love with Johnny Stark is a real catastrophe! And to become his wife
is even worse. But to you he’ll be an excellent Pygmalion.’
I don’t understand what that means. Returning to Magali’s apartment, I immediately
grab the dictionary, but find the needed word only with difficulty, as I think that it is
spelled ‘Pegmalion’! One thing becomes obvious to me: M. Stark doesn’t like short
brunettes. After the tall and blonde Nanou, after the blonde and tall Nicole I meet a tall,
redheaded young woman. She says to me:
- ‘I’m Nadine Joubert, Monsieur Stark’s secretary.’
She is wearing a pretty panther-print coat and in her hands she holds a stunning bag:
later I find out that it is bought ‘chez Hermès’. Nadine excludes a delicate aroma. The
impression is that she is holding a bouquet of flowers…
- ‘Monsieur Stark asked that, as soon as you finish rehearsing, I take you to 122 Avenue
Wagram, he will be waiting for you there in his business office.’
Twenty-two is my favourite number! A good omen. I’m on the right path. This puts me
into a happy mood. In the car I ask Nadine whether she had worked long for Stark.
- ‘Of course!’ She exclaims. ‘Already fourteen years! I was younger than you when I
first came to work for him.’
She tells me that she was training to work in the movies. Not as an actress, but as a
director’s assistant. And so, having finished school, she signed up for a secretarial course to
learn shorthand. Then she began work in an artistic agency, which only took up half the
day. She hoped in this way to get closer to the world of movies…
- ‘Would you like to dedicate the second half of your day to me?’ Once asked a tall
man, her boss’s friend, who would often come into the agency to ‘find something out’
about the artists.
Of course, it was he!
- ‘I knew nothing about music-hall, but with M. Stark… as they say, there’s no time to
get bored, life around him is in full swing! You will become convinced of that yourself if
you work with us. He organised the first tours of Gilbert Bécaud, and also the performances
of Line Renaud; she was the one who convinced him to try his luck in Paris, after Loulou
Gasté, who had come from the South, told him how at each corner there he saw bills that
announced the concerts of Yves Montand. They were in their hundreds. But Gasté didn’t
even suspect that in those times, M. Stark put them up himself, borrowing for that purpose
a cargo scooter on three wheels!
I imagine how uncle Jo drives around on a scooter, sticking up posters, and burst out
laughing so loudly that the people in the next car turn to look at us; Nadine quickly presses
the button to lift up the window-glass.
- ‘In short, I had so many things to do that Monsieur Stark asked me to work for him all
day, so that I forgot to even think about cinematography!’ She concluded.
- ‘I can imagine how nice it is to be his secretary…’
- ‘Not at all! It’s simply dreadful! You are never free: not in the evening, not on
Sundays, nor on holidays. Today we are in Paris, tomorrow – in London, then in New York
or in Tokyo. Telephone, telegraph, aeroplane… and not a moment’s rest… but I won’t
leave, not even if you shower me with gold!’
It seems that I’m not the only one whom Stark enchanted from the very first meeting!
Contrary to what I imagined, the office of M. Stark in the house at one hundred and
twenty-two Avenue Wagram doesn’t at all resemble the work offices of our town hall. It is
more in the style of a dining-room in a penthouse apartment. Snow-white curtains, carpet,
paintings on the walls. How nice it would be just to sit here, doing nothing… but uncle Jo
has other plans. From this evening on I will live in Neuilly – Nicole has already prepared
everything in the guestroom, Vincence is absolutely delighted; and tomorrow they will sort
out my toilettes. But the most important thing are the songs.
- ‘To win the contest ‘Game of Fortune’, you need to have chosen the right songs. And
not just one or two, but several… It may be that you’ll have to perform for many weeks in a
row. Come, name us your favourite songs!’
- ‘’l’Hymne à l’amour’… (his face twists into a grimace). Yes, I know, Mme Collière
thinks that I am still too young…’
- ‘Mme Collière is absolutely right. You are a chicklet who wants to crow like a
rooster!’
I bite my lips. M. Stark recalls himself, pats my cheek and adds gently:
- ‘Don’t frown. You look much nicer when you smile. I promise: you’ll crow yet,
loudly, so that the whole of France hears you! Let’s write it down: ‘l’Hymne à l’amour’…
and what else?’
- ‘What else? ‘Je sais comment’… and… I don’t know.’
- ‘You need to know! So can you sing anything else or not?’
- ‘Monsieur Stark…’ Nadine comes to my rescue, ‘you’ll frighten her to death.’
- ‘Nadine, this is my office and I do what I want… well, do you know the song
‘Exodus’?’
- ‘Yes, but not very well.’
- ‘You will have to learn it. You see, parallel with participating in ‘Game of Fortune’ I
want to offer you a trial run. Or, if you prefer, a small tour. You’ll raise the cloth.’
I look at him, frightened. What cloth? I imagine that I am again washing dishes.
- ‘In theatre jargon, a cloth is the front curtain. You’ll perform first, as soon as they lift
the curtain. And as for stars, there’ll be France Gall and Hugues Aufray, both very nice
people, you’ll see for yourself. So, if everything goes well, on the fifth of December you’ll
participate in ‘Game of Fortune’, and you’ll be watched by eighteen million TV viewers.
The sixth of December you’ll perform in Dijon, the seventh – in Geneva, the eighth in
Saint-Etienne, the ninth in Lyon, and on the twelfth you’ll appear on ‘Game of Fortune
again’… if God wills it.’
He says it jokingly, but I reply quite seriously:
- ‘God is always with me.’
My tone when I say these words baffles him for a moment.
- ‘All right…’ he says after a pause. ‘From now on you’re to think of nothing but your
songs. You’re not in love with anyone?’
- ‘I think one person believes that he is in love with me, but I am not in love with
anyone myself.’
- ‘All the better. When someone is in love, they don’t eat, sleep or work. If you want to
achieve success, you need to eat, sleep and work. These are three secrets on how to keep
your voice and succeed. There are no others… Nadine! Show her out!’
- ‘I hope you didn’t frighten her out of her wits?’
I burst into laughter. Stark looks at me in amazement:
- ‘You laugh like a grenadier… (I gape at him). 'Never mind, she obviously doesn’t
know what it means! You are a gnome, but you laugh like a giant. And since it is probable
that you won’t grow any more, you’ll need to tame your laughter… good day.’
On the threshold I turn around:
- ‘But I think Papa hasn’t yet received the contract?’
- ‘Yes! Yes! Print it, Nadine.’
‘Yes, yes!’ He says it so often, this Monsieur Stark – sometimes open like a cowboy,
sometimes secretive like an Indian, sometimes haughty, like a courtier, or generous like a
Christian. Thus is the person who is to change my whole life completely.
I don’t yet know that I will also completely change his.

My first tour

I have the feeling that I am caught and carried off to somewhere by the mistral. I have
barely enough time to say goodbye to Magali:
- ‘I’ll return soon, and we’ll drink a cup of coffee together!’
…I don’t yet know that I won’t return very soon at all…
- ‘You only have this one large suitcase?’
- ‘Yes, Nadine.’
- ‘I’ll ask the chauffeur to carry it down.’
- ‘No need to bother him, look: I can lift this suitcase with one finger!’
In the car bursts of laughter are constantly heard. The window-glass has to be lifted
again, so as not to attract the attention of passers-by.
‘My’ room at Neuilly. The first personal room I’ve had in my life, done up all in blue
colours. A plush teddybear which I sometimes press so that it squeals, to amuse Vincence.
A bath, full of foam… just like the one that Marilyn Monroe took: I had seen a picture of it
in an illustrated magazine.
- ‘Hello, Mama..! There’s foam everywhere! You sink down in it, and your fatigue
disappears at once. I’ll bring you some bottles from Paris!’
Everywhere I am met with friendly smiles – at home on avenue Wagram and on TV…
my performance on ‘Game of Fortune’ is about to begin, and Nanou and Nadine are
agitated.
- ‘Apparently Georgette Lemaire is withdrawing from the game. She’s talking about it
now with Roger Lanzac.’
My make-up is applied. I tell myself: ‘Oh no! What kind of victory will it be if she
refuses?’ M. Colombe, having arrived from Avignon, is sitting in a corner with uncle Jo.
Talks are taking place there, too! Dear God! Make it so that they come to an agreement. A
rumour circulates, causing much chaos: Georgette Lemaire is withdrawing in favour of
Mireille Mathieu. What’s the reason?
- ‘She’s already signed a contract with a gramophone-record company,’ says someone.
I don’t feel anxiety. Only firm resolve.
- ‘Think of only one thing, Mimi, of the audience. Concentrate,’ whispers uncle Jo to
me.
He remains backstage with M. Colombe. Clutching my golden medallion convulsively,
I cross myself, and step into the rays of the projectors. My voice departs for the skies…
thunderous applause. The switchboard is jammed. Yells of ‘bravo!’. Voices in the crowd:
‘A new Piaf!’ I am protected by the strong frame of uncle Jo. I hand out autographs.
Everywhere, even on the street, there is the clicking of cameras. They are so wonderful,
these people! I am ready to kiss them all!
- ‘The worst is over!’ I say in the car.
- ‘Don’t ever think that. In your profession the hardest is always before you.’
- ‘What about Monsieur Colombe?’
- ‘Fine! We agreed.’
I was sure of that. And not at all because I caught several phrases from their
conversation. According with the wish of my parents, M. Colombe was to become one of
the participants in the contract.
- ‘I don’t see any reason,’ explains Stark, ’for Monsieur Colombe and the Avignon
Festivals Committee to sign a contract with you, who has not yet become a professional
singer. "I can’t ask permission of the city of Avignon for this or that action!" I said. "Each
to his own business. Because, in betting on Mlle Mathieu, it is I, Stark, who is risking
much. I have before me expenses which will not be soon repaid: her installation in Paris,
her wardrobe, tutors and first of all Mireille’s repertoire, which needs sorting out – she only
knows two or three songs. What are you doing towards that? And I am pestering the best
songwriters, they are already composing for her. Because we need a record, and as soon as
possible. For the discs to be bought, Mireille needs to be known to the public. Concert
engagements are essential. Can you suggest anything? I can. I have acquired permission for
her to sing in Olympia. And the contract will be drawn up according to all the rules known
by the lawyers."’
- ‘I’m going to sing in Olympia?!’
- ‘In a month.’
- ‘Mamma mia!’
- ‘You’re right to be anxious. You’ll have to work very hard…’
Rue Caumartin. The artists’ entrance. Just imagine: only three years ago Piaf entered
through this same door, … accompanied by Théo Sarapo… on the third floor I experience a
shock: "She’s here! In her black dress, tormented by despair…"
- ‘That’s a portrait by Kiffer, it was reproduced on her bills,’ says to me Bruno
Coquatrix.
The portrait hangs behind Brunos’ writing desk, right above his chair, thus occupying
the most exalted place…
- ‘Did you love her very much, Monsieur Coquatrix?’
- ‘Oh, my dear girl, ‘love’ is an understatement! Johnny knows that very well. If there
was no Edith, there would be no Olympia.’
He offers a cigar to Stark:
- ‘You can take it: mine are the same as yours!’
- ‘Those are the ones that I gave you…’
- ‘No, these are the ones that I am giving you!’
They both smile, I laugh – my loud ‘ah!ah!ah!’ which makes M Coquatrix raise his
eyebrow in surprise. Johnny tells him that he’ll have to get used to it: - ‘She either laughs
loudly or cries bitterly. You only need to begin talking with her about Piaf, and she’ll burst
into tears at once.’
- ‘Yet I’ll talk about her with you, my dear girl, because it’s true, what I just told you. If
Piaf hadn’t come to my aid, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here chatting with you while
they prepare your contract for participation in the program of Sacha Distel and Dionne
Warwick!’
Releasing a cloud of smoke, he pauses, perhaps awaiting my reaction to the magic
words ‘your contract’, but that is Johnny’s affair. I myself am more interested in what he’s
telling about Edith Piaf. In his soft, velvety voice, looking at me confidentially, he recalls
how four years ago he was already preparing to ‘close shop’.
However strange, the triumph of Joséphine Baker in some ways complicated Olympia’s
situation further. He had counted upon Bécaud to bring back the public’s attention to vocal
programmes, but Bécaud was forced to break off his performances suddenly. In a critical
position, Bruno tried to replace him with other singers, but…
- ‘Such a one as Gilbert Bécaud cannot be replaced, and because in our profession it is
like constantly walking on a tightrope – I think Johnny will agree with me – after two
concerts, marked by a complete flop, I had decided to close Olympia: I had no funds nor
strength of will left. I despaired. And then Piaf, who herself had experienced much hardship
not long ago, began to call me every day. You cannot imagine, my dear girl, how uplifting
a friend’s compassion can be when catastrophe is near… Edith didn’t stop at that: knowing
that she was the only one who could guarantee Olympia a full house and thus bring the
theatre back on its feet, she performed here three months in a row. Yes, she saved me from
bankruptcy… that is why her portrait hangs, and will always hang, in my office… and now
let’s talk about you. My dear girl, when I saw you on Télé-Dimanche, I immediately called
Johnny… but it turned out he was already sitting in front of the TV. So I want to say that I
believe in you. However…’
I had felt that he would pronounce that word! However, he does not believe in a new
Piaf. And he asks himself whether it is too soon to let me go onstage, when I sing only the
songs that Piaf sang. Johnny remarks that we had already discussed it, that I really do not
yet have a repertoire of my own, but it is all the same interesting to see how I will be
received by the public.
- ‘She needs to perform on your stage, to pass this particular test.’
- ‘Having memorised only three of Piaf’s songs?’
- ‘Yes, she still does not sing anything else. I don’t have to explain to you that good
songs do not lie about in the street. I will lift the world on its feet, but for that we’ll have to
wait two-three months, or perhaps even four… whereas I want your public to get to know
her better now. It will be good for her.’
Smoke floats above the cigar, and Bruno’s voice sounds kind:
- ‘Of course, of course… but it’s risky. Naturally, if you’re in the game, I’m with you.
Well, what do you say, my dear girl?’
- ‘I’m happy when I sing! And… I really like playing. But I don’t enjoy losing.’
And I burst out laughing.
- ‘It’s a good thing that you sing much better than you laugh,’ says uncle Jo to me when
we are descending the stairs.
Stark decides that during my trial tour in the provinces I will perform in my modest
black dress. And for Olympia they will put together a different wardrobe.
- ‘By the way, I want to buy you a different suitcase.’
- ‘No, no! Let me keep the one I have.’
- ‘It’s too large. And not strong enough.’
- ‘It’s my lucky charm, and I’ll never part with it.’
- ‘I swear, you are as superstitious as Piaf!’
- ‘You shouldn’t talk! I saw it myself: the other day, having upset the salt shaker, you at
once took a pinch and threw it over your shoulder!’
He agreed with my arguments about the suitcase, and therefore I gladly accepted from
him a make-up set as a present. It had been my dream. I had visited many shops with
Nicole, but I liked perfumeries most of all. I never tired of admiring the beautiful boxes and
elegant bottles. (To tell the truth, I pay more attention to their shape rather than their
contents. I have remained like this all my life…) Oh, this running about after purchases… it
intoxicates you…
What a beautiful jumper in the display window! We come into the shop. I am shown
hundreds of pullovers. I have always had a weakness for lilac.
- ‘But that’s simply awful!’ Exclaims Nicole. ‘It’s only fit to be worn by old ladies!’
Nicole knows what she is talking about. She had after all been a model. She is no less
elegant than the beauties on the pages of illustrated magazines. But all her dresses go higher
than the knees, and such fashion isn’t in my taste. Nicole hands me a blue jumper, then a
red…
- ‘Could I also take a yellow one? Because I have five younger sisters, and when I get
tired of wearing blue, red and yellow, I’ll give these sweaters to Matite, Christiane and
Marie-France. But how much do they cost?’
Nicole answers that that is not my concern. Johnny will pay. I must remember once and
for all: I don’t need to think about money, I must only think about my appearance, about
becoming as attractive as possible…
- ‘Hello, Mama! Remember, how I was in a hurry to the concert hall? I was late and
very anxious about it, and I lost my hat made from fake fur, the one I bought at the market
for ten franks!’
- ‘Of course I remember, my poor dear! Your ears were never cold in it!’
- ‘Well, now I have another. Made from mink!’
A cry of surprise reaches my ears. The news flies around the drugstore…
The next day is a meeting with Nicole’s hairdresser Elrhodes. Nadine explains to him
that I need a slightly more luxurious hairstyle… then we meet Nicole, who awaits us at her
tailor’s - Louis Féraud’s. She is relentless: he will sew me a dress that goes above the
knees!
- ‘She is very stubborn,’ says Nicole. ‘She doesn’t want to show her legs at all.’
- ‘That’s too bad, because they are very attractive.’
I redden to the roots of my hair. For the first time I am undressing in the presence of a
man…
Happily, he is from Arles! Or ‘almost a countryman’. He tells me about his city, and I
forget that I am standing before him in a bra.
- ‘Will we sew an evening dress too?’
- ‘For now we won’t. We have to hurry. She’s leaving on a tour. We’ll come to you
again later!’
- ‘Hello, Mama! You know, they slightly fluffed up my head. My hair, I’m talking
about my hair… and they also ordered a black dress for me, sewn all over with pink ribbon.
But tell Papa that onstage I’ll perform in the same dress that he gave me! Uncle Jo decided
it. I think Papa will be happy with that… no, Mama, I can’t come at all. If you only knew
how much work I have! Each day I rehearse in Olympia.’
- ‘Onstage already?’
- ‘No, not onstage. In the studio on the fifth level. With Monsieur Byrs, the pianist of
Aznavour himself.’
- ‘Byrs? Is he from the South, by any chance? I once knew a Byrs, he came to the town
hall for breadcards…’
- ‘No, Mama, I don’t think so. He’s very nice… I completely forgot to tell you that I
couldn’t even move at the hairdressers’: they worked with my fingernails and toenails at the
same time! Can you imagine how stupid I looked?! Yes, reassure Papa: they used clear
nailpolish, not red!’
- ‘Perhaps you can drop in at home after ’Télé-Dimanche’?’
- ‘No, Mama! The next morning I’m leaving for Dijon…’
The tour… I dreamed of it all the time. After all it would be my first real journey… I
felt somewhat heavy at heart when uncle Jo said that he wouldn’t come with us: he has
many things to do in Paris, the songs for mademoiselle Mathieu are coming in, he needs to
listen to them, and therefore will join us somewhere on the way. I will leave in the car with
Georges Carrière, his employee, who is answerable for the tour. Georges is a tall, thin man
with a long nose and a friendly smile. The meeting place is Dijon. And all of us tour
participants will live in the same hotel.
Hugues Aufray, the most famous member of our tour, arrives with his musicians. Last
year he had gone on a tour with Sylvie Vartan. He enchants me at once: Hugues resembles
a tall, very slender cowboy, so thin that if he hides behind a birch tree he won’t be seen…
during rehearsal he impressed me very much. No matter what he takes in his hands – a
guitar, harmonica or pipe – any melody performed by him, whether happy or sad, gives a
feeling of wide, open spaces. I look at his eagle profile and listen to his velvety, slightly
muffled voice, which especially moves me when Hugues sings: ’Y avait Fanny’ or ‘N’y
pense plus, tout est bien’. The second of these songs I would have sung with pleasure
myself.
- ‘It’s by Bob Dylan,’ Aufray tells me.
I don’t know that name, and Hugues explains that Bob is a famous singer who lives in
the United States and composes his own songs. Hugues doesn’t laugh at me because I don’t
know all this. During this long trip he had the idea of putting together his own vocal and
instrumental ensemble – the singer is accompanied only by string instruments, as it is done
in cowboy movies when they dance… I really like his ensemble; what the musicians play
doesn’t at all resemble pop music. I would gladly listen to them each evening, standing
backstage, but Monsieur Carrière is completely against it. I must go to bed in time, such is
the command of M. Stark. I make a face: I would rather listen to Hugues Aufray! No, no, I
must sleep a lot, to restore my strength after exhausting travel, or else… in a word, I must
look after my voice! I will leave the concerts each night with France Gall.
When I was told that she is an ‘American star’, I of course admitted that I thought she
was French. There is laughter. It turns out that ‘American star’ is the music-hall term for a
famous singer who performs at the end of the first section of the concert, just before the
interval (usually those who perform in the second section are those whose names crown the
bills). All right, now I know it… France Gall is very nice. On the tour she is accompanied
by her father; understanding that I feel lonely, she at once suggests:
- ‘If you want to, we can share my dressing room.’
With what pleasure I drag to her room my black dress and make-up set from my little
cupboard, on the door of which is chalked ‘Mireille Matthieu’… they have put an extra ‘t’
in my name, but I am not offended, since they don’t know me at all… I don’t even feature
in the bill, uncle Jo explained it to me: everything happened so quickly… they had no time
to print new ones… and then again, it’s even to my advantage – it will be easier to
understand how I am being received.
The light of the projectors flares on, and unexpectedly it is announced to the public that
now will perform the young winner of ’Télé-Dimanche’. I come out onto the stage and…
what is happening! I haven’t even had time to open my mouth, and the hall thunders with
applause, like on Sunday, when I won the contest!
- ‘Hello, Mama! Just imagine, here I was greeted in the same way they sent me off after
performing in the competition!’
- ‘I don’t understand what you’re talking about! How did you go in Dijon? You
performed there before a completely unfamiliar audience, not like the one in Paris!’
From his side, M. Carrière calls uncle Jo:
- ‘The little one has shaken the caravan. She has won no less fame than Hugues.’
‘Caravan’ is yet another word which will expand my store of theatrical jargon.
And another expression I heard from France:
- ‘You know, you’re no present for me!’
But she said it kindly. I felt it acutely when I was observing her from the wings. It’s not
so easy to sing ‘Annie aime les sucettes’ after ‘l’Hymne à l’amour’… to tell the truth, I
caused her much trouble. After the concert her father escorts us both to the hotel, like two
sisters. In their presence I feel at home, and often think about my relatives. In this family
everyone is connected by music. I soon find out, with great delight, that Papa Gall himself
graduated from the Conservatory and wrote heaps of songs for Edith Piaf and Charles
Aznavour; each time I listen to one of them, ‘La Mamma’, I begin to cry. I don’t dare ask
whether he’ll agree to write something for me too (since I need new songs), because I
understand that he must first of all think of his own daughter. Not long ago he composed a
song for her, ‘Sacré Charlemagne’; we love to sing it as a chorus, as it makes us laugh. I
ask France:
- ‘Did you know Piaf?’
- ‘Of course! I often came to her dressing room in Olympia with Papa.’
How I envy her! It will never become a shared memory for us, alas. But France and I
already have something in common: like my father, her mother sang in church, and both of
us have twin brothers. Then again, the resemblance ends here, because France’s brothers
are musicians and perform with her. And I begin to daydream: if only Régis and Guy would
learn to play the guitar, they could also go on tour with me. Well, time will show, they are
still only thirteen years old! France also tells me about her organist grandfather, who is one
of the creators of the ensemble Petits Chanteurs. I simply adore that ensemble! I have a
record of their Christmas songs. Then she tells me that not long ago she received a large
prize from Eurovision. It was a nightmare! At rehearsal the orchestra musicians whistled at
her: it seems they didn’t like her song ‘Poupée de cire, poupée de son’; and when France
was judged the winner, her furious English rival went to tear her hair out!
- ‘Yes, we chose an unsettled profession!’
- ‘But we love-it, love-it!’
- ‘Shh! They’re already sleeping next door!’ Stops us Papa Gall.
I would gladly sit up with them all night, but it’s necessary to go to bed. We go to our
separate rooms.
And here I am engulfed by anxiety.
For the first time in my life I am left alone, really alone.
In uncle Jo’s house the doors to mine and Vincence’s rooms remained open. Here, in
the hotel, I lock myself in. Everything seems odd, as though I am in a foreign country. I am
afraid. I understand that it is stupid, but I am afraid. I can’t sleep in this large and chilly
bed. Since childhood I had become used to feeling the warmth of my sisters sleeping next
to me at night. And our laughter… oh, how I miss home. I remember how I settled the
blanket on my little brothers, how tenderly I rocked baby Béatrice…
The next night in Saint-Etienne was even worse. The sounds in my rooms seemed to me
even more frightening, the night-time illusions even more threatening, the loneliness even
more oppressing. How surprised would be the audience, who yelled ‘bravo!’ to me at the
evening concerts, if they saw how I sob at night into my pillow and don’t dare turn off the
light.
On the way from Saint-Etienne to Lyon M. Carrière, who had secretly been observing
me, became worried about my health. I told him that I don’t sleep well in the unfamiliar
setting. He advised me to take a nap in the hotel after lunch.
- ‘Oh, no! I really want to be there at the rehearsal…’
I don’t feel well anywhere but the theatre. Here it is as though I acquire a family. I
quietly hum along with Hugues and his ensemble. I carefully watch France as she moves on
stage. Soon the curtain will go up, I am performing first, so there is no point in leaving the
dressing room to go to the hotel. I watch how France applies her make-up. By the way she
comments that I over-use the rouge. And that my eyebrow pencils need to be sharpened to a
very fine point. I am happy.
But when the curtain descends for the last time and we need to return to the hotel, I
become so gloomy that Papa Gall notices it.
- ‘I can’t stand the night,’ I explain.
- ‘Well, in that respect you’re not at all like Piaf!’
When uncle Jo at last appears, in Geneva, I don’t hide my joy. He attends the rehearsal
and… doesn’t say anything. That must mean that everything is going well. In the evening I
don’t see him in the wings, it seems he is watching us from the hall. Our last performance
on tour finishes, and Stark treats the participants to a modest dinner. Everyone is enjoying
themselves, I feel wonderful. The artists, vying with each other, tell entertaining stories.
One of them is about Aznavour; it belongs to those times when he performed with
Pierre Roche. Charles, embarrassed by his small height, wore shoes with thick soles. The
partners went to visit a manager who could give them an engagement; absorbed by the
conversation, Aznavour crosses his legs; noticing his fat sole, the manager bends to Roche
and whispers: ‘Does he have a club foot?!’ Charles, not noticing anything, keeps on talking
and mechanically now crosses his other foot. And then the manager exclaims: ‘But he has
two club feet!’
Another story is about Bourvil: once he came to his accompanist Etienne Lorin and saw
how he, out of breath, was dragging bags of coal to his apartment. ‘Wait, old man, I’ll give
you a hand!’ With these words Bourvil hauls a bag onto his back, takes it upstairs, comes
back down, jumping some steps, and grabs another bag. The concierge runs out of his
booth, tears the bag out of his hands at yells at Lorin: ‘How can your conscience allow you
to let Monsieur Bourvil haul coal for you!’
Each time he retold this occurrence, Bourvil added: ‘That was how I noticed that I had
become famous’.
Then follows a story about Marten… then Barclay… I am unused to staying up so late.
I can’t keep my eyes open, and uncle Jo sends me to bed. Tomorrow we need to make some
purchases before flying to Paris… I say goodbye to the other tour members, but not for
long, I think. In March Hugues in going to perform in Olympia, I promise to come to his
concert. France promises to watch Distel’s programme, in which I will perform. In reality
we won’t have the chance to meet for long. Our paths will only rarely cross each other.
In the morning I rush along the streets of Geneva as though chased by the wind. And
the wind here, it must be said, is rather strong. Uncle Jo looks at the scarf that I have
wrapped round my neck with obvious curiosity.
- ‘It’s for my voice,’ I explain.
- ‘It’s the best way to catch cold. Take it off at once.’
- ‘But I’m so afraid of losing my voice. It’s the only thing I possess!’
- ‘It’s more likely that you’ll lose your sight, tip of your nose or your hair…’
They are so rich here in Switzerland! They have built a huge fountain in the middle of
the lake just so it looks good. And what beautiful shops there are everywhere, in them there
is everything you need to celebrate Christmas. Christmas... this will be the first Christmas I
won't spend at home. I must buy everyone a present, I can’t forget anyone…
- ‘And what will you buy for yourself?’
- ‘A pair of shoes.’
- ‘You wouldn’t prefer a modest necklace?’
- ‘I have my golden cross.’
- ‘A small bracelet?’
- ‘I don’t like jewellery. Shoes are better.’
And we depart to find the ideal shoes, which are not so easy to find when your feet are
size thirty-three. All those we are shown are too large. Johnny remarks that the women of
Switzerland have large feet and we are only vainly wearing down our soles! Perhaps it’s
worth going into the children’s sections? I argue that little girls wear shoes without heels,
and I must have shoes with heels, even if not very high ones… but they must have heels!
And we continue to visit the shops, until we finally and totally unexpectedly find charming
shoes… made from red leather! They fit me well, the heel is the right one, and their colour
will match the ribbon that is on the dress being sewn for me by Monsieur Féraud. What
luck!
But when we return to Neuilly, Nicole exclaims:
- ‘How awful! What is this? Red shoes! Everyone will look at them, and they won’t
even glance at your face!’
And the next day they order me made-to-measure shoes. Black ones.
Uncle Jo has prepared a surprise for me. He orders the curtains in the room to be pulled
together. He hangs up the screen. How wonderful! We’re going to see a film!
- ‘Not just any film,’ says Johnny. ‘A film about you. I made it in Geneva.’
Ah! Now it’s clear why he wasn’t in the wings but in the hall. The film begins… no,
that’s impossible… is that really me?! Stark has cut out all the shots in which they applaud
me and yell ‘bravo!’, and left only the ones in which I sing my three songs.
He turns on the light again. My cheeks are blazing.
- ‘How do you find yourself?’
- ‘I’m simply terrible!’
I dimly hope that he’ll protest. In vain.
- ‘And you… how did you find me?’
He answers dryly:
- ‘A real scarecrow!’
The blood flows from my face. Now I am as white as a sheet. My heart turns to ice.
Barely audibly, I ask:
- ‘What do we do now?’
- ‘To begin with we’ll watch the film again.’
The images flash by again. From time to time Johnny stops the film:
- ‘Look… look how you came onstage! And how you walk! And what are you doing
with that arm? Look at your mouth, why are you pulling such faces?’
It’s real torture to watch again and again how I perform my three songs… the light
comes on again. I dare to whisper:
- ‘But all the same… they applauded me…’
- ‘You just saw everything yourself. Beware of applause more than of whistling. They
applauded you because you charmed them with your sweet little face and strong voice. And
also the tragic story of your life. As you know, everyone likes fairytales.’
- ‘What do I do now?’
- ‘Work… but I must say I also have to praise you. You know how to hold a victory.
And that is the most important quality of a true boxer. You’ll soon realise yourself that
show business isn’t far from boxing.’
The lesson is harsh. But as Johnny said, I do ‘know how to hold a victory’!
- ‘How much time is there left before my performance in Olympia?’
- ‘Eleven days.’
- ‘In such a short time I won’t be able to learn everything I need to know.’
- ‘Of course not. Don’t even try. Think about what you need to get rid of. First of all,
don’t make faces. Don’t wave your arm. Don’t move like a clockwork doll… I’ll tell you a
trick: think about all this before bed. The work will be done during the night, while you
sleep. And during the day you’ll just have to whip yourself on.’

My first Olympia

No more running around the stores, the perfumeries, the shoe shops. Now it’s only
Neuilly – Olympia, Olympia – Neuilly, Neuilly – Olympia.
In the studio on the fifth floor of the house on Rue Caumartin, the pianist Henri Byrs
always arrives half-frozen. He doesn’t like the winter. And says:
- ‘Brrr… one of my legs is frozen, the other numb!’
I guffaw. It’s good to laugh, it clears the throat. From time to time Bruno Coquatrix
looks in:
- ‘Everything well, my girl?’
- ‘Yes, my uncle!’
Later Johnny arrives and listens attentively.
- ‘That’s a bit under, no?’
- ‘Yes, she has a tendency for that.’
- ‘Pay attention, Mireille, you’re a little out of tune.’
- ‘Okay, Johnny. I’ll obediently follow Byrs.’
Participation in Télé-Dimanche has become routine for me. I come. I win. Once they
photograph me with Eddie Barclay and Charles Aznavour; I stand between them. Both of
them like me well, I can feel it. Charles wrote two songs for me. Eddie intends to release
my first record. Naturally, when I learn all the songs needed for it. In the coming two
months uncle Jo has to listen through four hundred and fifty songs…
- ‘Well?’ Barclay asks him.
- ‘It’s an avalanche of tired old melodies. Not at all what’s needed. Everyone still writes
as they did for Piaf.’
- ‘She won’t be forgotten very soon.’
- ‘So far that’s favourable to Mireille. I signed the contract for her to participate in The
Eddie Sullivan Show.’
- ‘No!’
- ‘Yes. By the third of March we’ll be in New York.’
That is how I find out that I am to discover America.
Eddie can’t get over the news. The Eddie Sullivan Show is the most famous TV show in
the United States. All the most well-known artists persistently seek to appear on it.
- ‘Well, I achieved it with unbelievable ease. The agreement came with the return mail.
Fifteen days ago I roused all my friends, Leslie Grade in London, my correspondents in
New York and Los Angeles: "A rare combination – a voice like Piaf’s, and very pretty…"’
I listen. It seems uncle Jo, who keeps on plucking my most painful strings, still thinks
there is much hope for me. Our eyes meet. And, as though guessing my thoughts, he says:
‘I did warn you that your path won’t be an easy one!’
And in the meantime he has prepared a wonderful surprise for me: I can come to
Avignon for a day to give out presents for Christmas, since I won’t be able to celebrate it
there. To save time I fly by plane. Finally my enormous suitcase has found a use! At my
appearance, the quarter Croix-des-Oiseaux, it could be said, falls into chaos. In our house
are gathered not only the fourteen members of the Mathieu family, but Aunt Irène and
Great-Aunt Juliette, the cousins of cousins and the neighbours of neighbours… In my
hands there are bars of Swiss chocolate, dolls, velvet bonnets bought in Geneva… I am
looked upon as though I am a good fairy, everyone looks happy, and I am happy with them.
Mama prepared thirteen celebratory desserts (if you eat it, you will be happy all year
round), and Papa has set up the Christmas crèche. It has been expanded with new statuettes.
- ‘Look, Mimi! I added more sheep to the flock. And the shepherds now have not one
camel, but three – it’s much more plausible.’
Papa has obviously been touched by my arrival:
- ‘You know, your Papa sobbed, sitting in front of the TV! Now everyone says hello to
him on the street. And they say to each other: "That’s the father of Mireille Mathieu!"’
Before saying goodbye the room goes quiet. It seems that even Béatrice understands the
importance of what is happening. Lying in Mama’s arms she stares with her little eyes at
Roger Mathieu, who without taking off his hat says to his eldest daughter:
- ‘Mireille… you’re a wonderful girl. May you always remain like that. Be simple and
serious, to serve as an example to others.’
- ‘I will, Papa.’
I don’t say anything else, because I’m incapable of pronouncing another word. I kiss
everyone – the big and the small. Around me everyone cries I don’t know why. Perhaps
because any parting tears at the heart, even if it promises happiness. I sit in the car next to
uncle Jo. Hearing the noise of the engine, the children leap out onto the street. They run
after us in a cloud of dust, yelling:
- ‘Mimi! Mimi!’
Will the public love me as much as they do?
My dressing room is situated high up – on the fourth level, the most lively in Olympia;
it is right next to the dancers’ dressing room. They are all very good-looking, especially
their teacher George Reich. He is American, with very light blonde hair and transparent
eyes. He is so handsome that I can’t stop looking at him.
- ‘Don’t dream too much, he’s not interested in girls!’
I don’t understand what the dancer wants to say…
On the same storey as the stage there is a star’s double dressing room, or rather, that of
an ‘American star’, and the artists’ bar. It is the last place where it is possible to exchange a
word. There are no chairs, only round tall stools before the counter, which stretches the
length of the wall, hung with various old concert bills. The stage workers and performers,
sometimes accompanied by friends who have come to visit them, come here to spend the
time between rehearsals or before coming onstage, drink cool or sometimes even warming
drinks. Behind the counter is the barmaid – a blond, chubby, amusingly painted and very
cheerful woman, whose name is… Mimi.
She brings drinks to the dressing rooms, encouraging those who get cold feet, lifts the
spirits of the performer who comes offstage slapping his stomach (‘A complete flop!’),
pours champagne into wine glasses on festive occasions and, like a true nurse, administers
fortifying drinks. She always has alcohol handy.
- ‘I’d like a glass of orange juice, Madame.’
- ‘My dear Mimi, just call me Mimi!’
Very quickly she becomes for me ‘one of ours’. Of course, ‘uncle’ Coquatrix almost
always comes here; imperturbable (not once did I see him hurry and not once did I hear him
raise his voice), he always speaks evenly, and always has a smile on his lips.
- ‘He still smiles even when he loses,’ remarks Mimi.
- ‘Where does he lose?’
- ‘Say, at the races, or when a concert goes badly.’
- ‘But the hall is always full.’
- ‘It may be full, but the public isn’t always happy! Our spectators aren’t very calm.
And if they begin to hush..!’
‘Hush’ is yet another verb which enriches my dictionary of jargon. It was this word that
Coquatrix used when for the first time the conversation turned to me.
- ‘I’m afraid they’ll hush her… out of protest. Believe me, Johnny. They loved Piaf so
much. They still grieve over her death. And they could be outraged that another singer uses
her repertoire.’
- ‘But the majority of TV viewers voted for her.’
- ‘I know. But TV is one thing. And Olympia is quite another. I would say that Piaf’s
estate was here. Well, enough of that! Life will tell…’
Naturally, I don’t take part in this argument. But often I see how they whisper to each
other about something, smoking cigars. As yet I am happy. The theatre is one big family.
Here everyone addresses each other with the personal ‘tu’, they laugh, sing, play practical
jokes on each other, share grief as well as happiness, walk around in bathrobes; if you need
it, they will help you dress before coming onstage. The wife of my ‘uncle’, Paulette
Coquatrix, keeps order. Her main concern are the costumes. Why do I call her cousin?
Probably because she is too youthful to be called ‘aunt’. Their daughter Patricia – everyone
calls her Pat – was married half a year ago.
- ‘Oh, if only you had seen it!’ Mimi tells me. ‘What chaos there was! They used a free
day between the respective performances of Soviet and Israeli artists. The moment the
curtain descended after the final performance of Moscow’s music-hall and the last spectator
left the hall, they at once removed the seats from the orchestra pit and covered it with a
large platform. They hung up a huge chandelier, decorated with many ribbons. Baskets of
flowers, which arrived from everywhere, were placed along the red velvet curtain. They set
up stalls with various snacks, and draped red cloth over the entrance, through which three
thousand guests had come that evening. All that was left to do was open the ball! And the
next day – hop! – everything was put back in its place and Olympia again became Olympia,
on whose scene opened the tour of the Israeli music-hall. The wedding of his daughter is
the most magnificent performance Bruno has put on!’
Patricia, the newly-wed, is a press manager. She is only a little older than me, she has
beautiful green eyes and the hair of an Italian Madonna.
- ‘The announcement about your trip to New York has just appeared,’ she says. ‘And
the reporters want an interview.’
- ‘No, no, only after the premiere,’ Johnny objects.
I am happy with his decision. If when I am surrounded by performers I feel like a fish
in water, then when I am surrounded by journalists and showered with questions, I begin to
imagine that I am again sitting the exam for the school certificate. And I begin to stumble
over every word. Finally, they allow Thérèse Fournier to speak with me. I find her very
nice. It was she who placed the first notice about me in France-Soir. I think I really surprise
this tall pretty woman.
- ‘You read Lisette! But it’s a magazine for girls!’
- ‘I’m used to it.’
- ‘You have already travelled by plane. What impression did you have of it?’
- ‘Impression..? You fly and are unable to see anything.’
- ‘So, you are going to New York?’
- ‘Yes.’
- ‘Will you drink whisky there?’
- ‘I have already drunk it in Geneva, it was part of a cocktail. And I also ate lobster. For
the first time in my life.'
- ‘And how was it?’
- ‘I didn’t feel well afterwards.’
(Later she will write: ‘Nothing surprises her, nothing delights her.’)
- ‘Do you remember well the day when you saw Piaf?’
- ‘I don’t know… I think it was Christmas. I was at home, sitting in the dining room
with Christiane, and Piaf was performing the song ‘Milord’; something… something
completely unimaginable was happening with me… I don’t know how to express it… if I
was told: ‘Go and adore her’, I would have gone at once.

(She will write: ‘It’s hard to imagine this encounter between Edith Piaf, with her passionate
femininity, and this young girl who has yet to experience life.’)
A few hours before the premiere, Nadine, who is tidying up my dressing room and
guarding it like a loyal keeper, suddenly discovers that I have no coat and won’t have
anything to wear to the dinner held by Bruno Coquatrix! Everything had happened so
quickly! A light black coat, which can be worn above the dress sewn by Féraud, is
absolutely necessary. And already she is rushing to Rue Caumartin to find me a suitable
coat, the winter wind ruffling her thick russet hair…
God alone knows what is happening in the theatre. To surprise her husband, who has
stayed in America, Dionne is absolutely set on speaking to him and is beside herself
because the connection can’t be established. Doudou, the head electrician, is enraged
because one of the projectors won’t work. One of the dancers has dislocated her ankle.
Should they send for the doctor? Paulette tells me that I have lined my eyes too much, that I
look like one of the Brutos (this comic act has come to us from Italy and was so successful
in Claude François’ program that Bruno again included it in the schedule of Petula Clark,
and then in ours. They paint their entire faces with soot, even the teeth, so as to appear
toothless, and Aldo smiles as widely as he can on purpose, to make me laugh).
Patricia quickly kisses me and runs to the entrance to meet the reporters. Am I nervous?
Yes, and no. I must win. Nadine returns with a light coat, she has bought it in the shop next
door.
- ‘The mistress of the shop offered to raise the hem by morning. I told her that’s
impossible, I need it now! When she found out that the coat was meant for the ‘little Piaf’,
she dropped everything at once, even leaving by the counter a shopper who was deciding
whether to take some tartan material for a dress. And so I’m here!’
Unfortunately, the coat still turned out to be too long. Simone, our wardrobe assistant,
said she’d be able to shorten it by the end of the concert. And in the meantime they bring
flowers into my dressing room, flowers, flowers and more flowers.
- ‘Which boor thought of sending those?’ Simone says indignantly. ‘Those’ are
luxurious pink carnations. She calls Jean, a dancer, who is going past, along the corridor
outside our door:
- ‘Take this away!’
Jean takes the flowers as though he is afraid to burn his hands.
- ‘Give them to whomever you like!’
- ‘Oh, no!’
- ‘Then throw them away!’ Turning to me, Simone explains: ‘Carnations bring bad luck.
If Monsieur Coquatrix saw them..!’
I don’t try to find out why these flowers bring bad luck, although during walks
Grandmama used to instruct me on how to escape misfortune…
Until then I had thought that telegrams only bring news of catastrophes. It turns out
they can also bring great happiness. I read the signatures: Line Renaud, Charles Aznavour,
Hugues Aufray, France Gall and… I read and don’t believe my eyes: ‘To Mimi of
Avignon, Momo of Ménilmontant says welcome and wishes her success in the world of
show business. Maurice Chevalier.’
- ‘Is he in the hall?’
- ‘No. Now he only comes here in the mornings. But there are Ray Ventura, Salvador,
Bécaud, Aznavour…’
This is fantastic! How can I be afraid of anything now? But uncle Jo, on the contrary, is
very tense, although he tries not to show it. He paces back and forth, giving me last-minute
advice. A drawn-out ring announces that there are fifteen minutes left before the start of the
performance. We go down the stairs. The young artists we meet on our way exclaim:
‘Break a leg!’ Before entering the hall, where Nicole and Vincence are already sitting,
uncle Jo hugs me tightly. I hadn’t heard that phrase so often in my whole life: ‘Break a
leg!’ Mimi, standing at the threshold of her bar, says it for the second last time. And the last
time it is said by uncle Bruno, who adds, pointing at a worker who is carrying part of the
scenery: ‘Touch wood!’ The sweaty dancers return from the stage after their performance.
Here comes the voice of Sophie Agacinsky, the presenter of the concert: ‘Mireille
Mathieu!’ I cross myself… the curtain comes up.
And so I am alone. Alone, although behind me, in the wings, stand about fifty people,
and before me are two thousand spectators. I haven’t had time to open my mouth and they
are already applauding me, perhaps because I seem so small on this enormous stage,
because I look helpless and vulnerable. But it’s not like that at all. I enjoy fighting alone.
I especially like the moment when the orchestra plays the prelude, and the hall settles
into such a thick silence that you could almost cut it with a knife.
- ‘Ecoute-moi, mon ami…’
What a wonderful phrase, I address it to the audience, assembled at my first
performance in ‘Olympia’.

Aimes-tu la liberté?
Voudrais-tu t’enfuir d’ici?
Voudrais-tu t’en évader…

I can’t make out the faces of the spectators, but I feel that they are listening intently…

Je sais comment scier tous ces barreaux.


Je sais comment avoir le coeur libre et heureux…
Dors...

Intonation. ‘Watch out for your intonation,’ uncle Jo said to me. And I watch out for it.
The song soars high, then my voice dies away. Shouts of ‘bravo!’. I feel as though I have
been reborn.
Yes, this is my life.
And nothing will stop me now except death.
The second song we chose because Christmas is approaching, and because I especially
like it. It brings back images that are close to my heart, the faces of my little sisters when
we all lived in a house with a pointed roof and at night trembled with the cold. The
orchestra plays the prelude to the song ‘Sonnez hautbois, résonnez musettes!’, which we
sang at school…

Je cours après le paradis


Car c’est Noël à ce qu’on dit.
Le Noël de la rue
C’est le froid de l’hiver
Dans les yeux grands ouverts
Des petits de la rue…
Le Noël de la rue
C’est la neige et le vent
Et le vent de la rue
Fait pleurer les enfants.
Ils sont blottis comme des Jésus
Que Sainte Marie aurait perdus…

This song unsettles my memory. Oh, obviously we didn’t run barefoot through the
snow, but:

La lumière et la joie
Sont derrière les vitrines…
(Joy and light were hidden behind the shop windows…’)

With that we were familiar!

Mon petit, amuse-toi bien


En regardant, en regardant
Mais surtout ne touche à rien
En regardant de loin.

The thunder of applause, more calls of ‘bravo!’. That must be uncle Jo… but it seems
he’s not the only one yelling. I have no time to sort it out, the orchestra is playing the
beginning of ‘l’Hymne à l’amour’…
This time there’s no doubt about it, ‘bravo!’ is shouted by many! And Aznavour is
among them, I can pick out his voice from a thousand. Backstage I fall into Bruno’s
embrace, but he pushes me onto the stage again immediately, I go out to take a bow – once,
twice, three times…
I feel so confused, clumsy, awkward. The trial is over, but did I succeed?
- ‘We’ll find that out after the interval,’ Bruno tells me, but I don’t understand why he
have to wait so long.
- ‘Monsieur Stark is still in the hall, he wants to gauge the audience’s mood better, and
is observing how the questionnaire goes.’
What questionnaire? Everything turns out to be simple: about two dozen employees of
Olympia are among the audience, hading out sheets with three questions:
‘Did you like Mireille Mathieu?’
‘Does her ‘resemblance’ to Piaf bother you?’
‘Have you ever been to one of Piaf’s gala-concerts?’
The answer sheets are being examined during Sacha Distel’s performance. So that is
what Bruno and Johnny were whispering about: they wanted to analyse everything
thoroughly…
Nadine takes me away to the dressing room to remove my make-up and brush my hair
for dinner. I hear the noise of the end of the concert, the invasion of the backstage, footsteps
on the stairs, a knock on the door. Aznavour, Petula Clark and Dalida took the trouble to
ascend to the fourth storey to congratulate the debutante. And when you think about what
goes on backstage in Olympia after a premiere, you realise how wonderfully generous and
loyal of them this gesture is. I will never forget it. That night I acquired three life-long
friends.
Coming downstairs, we found ourselves in an atmosphere of general rejoicing. Bruno
and Johnny glowed. The results of the questionnaire had exceeded every expectation.
- ‘Hello, Mama..! Can you hear me? The audience had to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’.’
- ‘Like in the referendum held by General de Gaulle!’
- ‘To the first question – ‘did you like Mireille Mathieu’ – ninety-five percent answered
affirmatively.’
- ‘Oh dear! That’s more votes than the General received!’
- ‘To the second question – ‘did her resemblance to Piaf bother you?’ – ninety percent
answered in the negative. And to the third question half the audience answered that they
hadn’t once seen Piaf on stage.’
- ‘That’s self-evident. And to find it out they didn’t need any referendums! Is it cold in
Paris? Don’t forget to wrap a scarf around your neck!’
Now it’s clear: the audience like me as I am, the little Piaf reminds them of the great
Piaf, who they had loved so dearly.
To my amazement, uncle Jo is of a different opinion.
The next morning I ask:
- ‘Where did Piaf’s discs go?’
- ‘You’ll receive them later.’
- ‘Did you hide them?’
- ‘Yes, I did. I don’t want you to listen to Piaf any more.’
My eyebrows go up.
- ‘Just so, Mireille. I want to be the manager of a singer, not a phonograph.’
My blood boils:
- ‘Do they give flowers to phonographs? Do they send them telegrams?!’
- ‘It seems you think you’re already a star? But you’re not yet a star! You’re still at the
bottom of the bills, Mireille. All the work is still before you.’
- ‘So what have we achieved so far?’
- ‘Almost nothing. We have started the engine, but there is very little fuel. It can easily
stop tomorrow. If that is all right with you, if it is enough for you to receive flowers and
telegrams after a concert in Olympia, you can return to Avignon.’
He’s deceiving me. I can feel it, he’s deceiving me. He signed the contract to go to
America! But it’s almost as though he’s reading my thoughts.
- ‘I’m not deceiving you, Mireille. It’s not too late yet to turn back. Everything depends
on you. If you want to go on, you need to work. You heard what Eddie, Bruno, Charles and
Henri (Henri Contet wrote the words for Piaf’s songs, he is the author of the lyrics of ‘Noël
de la rue’ - I heard his and Johnny’s conversation, but didn’t listen very closely) said.
Success in Olympia mustn’t turn your head.’
- ‘Ninety-five percent of the audience said they liked me!’
- ‘True. When we like someone, we forgive them much. And they excused you because
you are charming, touching and naive, because you are a debutante. But next time they
won’t give you any leeway. You must get away from Piaf. Or you will never become a true
singer. You will only be Piaf’s shadow.’
It is difficult to hear this. Especially after the first performance in Olympia, which filled
me with gladness, like a dream come true. Now I feel like a Cinderella who has lost her
gilded coach. Lowering my eyes, I fall silent. There is a long pause. I don’t want to speak. I
don’t want anything at all. Johnny sighs:
- ‘Would you like to see the newspapers?’
- ‘Nadine has already showed me France-Soir. They have given me eight columns on
the first page!’
- ‘I don’t mean that, Mireille. Yes, your photograph is very nice. In it you are very
cheerful, very pretty. You have just the right smile to wish the readers of the paper a merry
Christmas. You didn’t even overpaint your eyes…’
- ‘And the long nails look good!’
- ‘Yes, but I’m not talking about that. The reactions of the critics are more important.
Here. Read. Here’s Carrière’s article. And this one’s Perez’s. They attend all concerts, and
so are able to make comparisons. And they know their job.’
He hands me Figaro: ‘… natural phenomenon called Mireille Mathieu, the living shade
of Piaf. It’s only too bad that such an unusual resemblance can get in the way of the
blossoming of a strong and original talent. But then again, didn’t even Piaf at first resemble
Fréhel?’. And Combat: ‘This young songstress is television’s recent discovery. But we are
disinclined to believe such sudden finds, these ‘pearls’ of song contests, and this time we
have a special reason for mistrust, since Mireille Mathieu appears before us in the role of a
new Edith Piaf. As yet Mireille Mathieu hasn’t been harmed by her resemblance to Piaf,
nor by her sudden arrival in the world of show business, nor by a swift and loud success.
But she must have new songs composed for her immediately. She must not be allowed to
become Piaf’s shadow, we want to hear her again in six months, but only with her own
repertoire.’
- ‘There, you see,’ remarks Johnny. ‘You’ll conquer them if you are able to forget
Madame Piaf.’
His words are like blows.
- ‘You’re destroying my idol for me.’
- ‘Please, Mireille, don’t play at being Raimu!’ He pauses. ‘No one can destroy Edith
Piaf. But she can destroy you.’
I am silent again.
- ‘Do you at least understand what I am saying? Or can’t anything reach you?’ He sighs
again. ‘Yes! I knew what I was doing when I decided to give you this perfume for
Christmas! As soon as I saw it I thought immediately that it’s as though it was made for
you.’
My first real perfume. Made by Grès. And it is called Obstinacy.

When Johnny speaks to me I understand that he is right. But the moment I find myself
in the whirlpool of Olympia, of flowers, laughter, compliments, I immediately forget his
words. And remain ‘the little Piaf’.
One evening, as I sit in Mimi’s noisy bar, my ears catch two phrases, spoken in low
voices. They are not addressed to me, but perhaps calculated so that I hear them.
- ‘She’s got a nerve, that little one, to sing ‘l’Hymne à l’amour!’’
Until then I had only admired the rose, but forgotten about the thorns. And they prick
painfully.
- ‘It’s not enough to be daring. You have a short memory, boys! And it’s only been three
years! When she appeared with her swollen legs… already she couldn’t fit into her shoes
and performed in sandals… the public came to watch how she died onstage!’
These words hurt me. I receive three blows at once: a dart aimed at me personally, an
image of Piaf, which brings a lump to my throat, and another image of a previously
unknown, cruel side of the public. I leave unnoticed, without saying a word. Was it of these
wounds that Johnny warned me?
What confusion! This would never have happened at home. How I miss it, my home!
But then thanks to me it will become much more beautiful. And I am so made that, blessed
with a good memory, I am also able to forget. So far life has done everything to allow me
to do so: it surprises me with new bouquets of flowers.
So today, for example, is an important evening. For now, I am finished with Olympia.
And therefore, as uncle Jo says: ‘Mademoiselle Mathieu will be introduced to society!’
Pierre Cardin is holding a large reception. My appearance is a surprise for the guests.
We arrive in the evening, to leave time for rehearsal. Cardin has a magnificent house on the
embankment of Anatole France. To me it seems like a palace… from the large glass dining
room opens a view on the Seine, along which glide river barges. The servants place
beautiful miniature lamps and silver candle holders on the tables and buffets.
- ‘Will you have enough space here, Mademoiselle?’ Asks M. Cardin.
Very intimidated, I am mute, and Johnny replies for me:
- ‘Oh! She doesn’t move around much (he should have said: ‘Doesn’t move at all’), next
to the piano will be just fine.’
Monsieur Cardin doesn’t resemble anyone I know, except perhaps a portrait of Chopin
which I saw in my dictionary. But, unlike the composer, Cardin is smiling. He takes care of
everything himself: moves an object, replaces it with another, instructs which drinks to
bring… the hall has already been transformed into a cloakroom, cosy rooms and corners
have been set up everywhere, elegant furniture fills the house, paintings hang on the walls.
He takes us to his bedroom and tells me to feel at home. Compared to the dining room this
chamber is furnished much more modestly. My make-up case I take into the master's
bathroom. Then… rehearsal begins.
- ‘I’ll give you a sign,’ says Johnny. ‘If I see that things are going well, you’ll sing
‘Jezebel’, and if it’s still okay, you’ll perform ‘La vie en rose’.‘
- ‘Why would it not go well?’
- ‘Because all of Paris will be gathered here, there will be people by whom it is not easy
to be liked, they have seen and heard many artists, and not just in Paris but in London and
New York as well. It is only to be hoped that they love to discover new talents and make
them famous.’
Pierre Cardin, having just come in, joins the conversation:
- ‘For example, tonight there will be Juliette Achard, you know, the wife of Marcel
Achard, author of ‘Potatoes’. (No, I don’t know. For me potatoes are merely a dish.) She is
a won-der-ful woman, I love her dearly. She helped me become who I am. She was my first
customer in those times when I sewed dresses in my attic room. Juliette goes everywhere –
from performances at the Comédie-Française to the concerts of Johnny Halliday, whom
she adores. And when Juliette adores someone, you may be assured that all of Paris will
follow her example.’
I must perform after dinner, closer to midnight. And now it is only seven in the evening.
Uncle Jo says that for me to still be in good form at midnight (‘like Cinderella!’ I think), it
is absolutely necessary for me to rest, because at such a late hour I am usually asleep.
- ‘You understand, Monsieur Cardin, until now she has always performed right after the
curtain went up, and was already in bed by ten p.m.’
I must rest. It’s good for my voice.
- ‘Well! My bedroom is at her command,’ says M. Cardin. ‘I’ll make sure you are sent
something to eat.’
A servant brings plates on which lie slices of bread covered in minuscule black balls.
‘What’s this?’
- ‘Lentils from Morbihan,’ replies uncle Jo.
I make a face:
- ‘I don’t like them. They smell of fish.’
- ‘You’ll like them later, only then you’ll call them caviar… and now, Nadine, get her
into bed!’
And now I can boast that I have slept in the bed of one of the most famous Frenchmen
in the world.
When Nadine woke me half an hour before the performance, Pierre Cardin asked me
how I felt:
- ‘It’s so wonderful to be able to sleep like that,’ he says, ‘no matter where, at any time,
just like a baby!’
- ‘But she is a baby,’ says uncle Jo, ‘and I am her nursemaid!’
A tall beautiful lady with blond lacquered hair, one of those whom they call ‘chic fou’,
mad about fashion, in a narrow rose crêpe dress with a collar sewn all over with pearls (she
has bare arms and knees, as fashion demands), comes to ask whether I slept well. As I
understand it, she had been meeting the guests.
After her departure I ask Nadine whether she is the wife of Monsieur Cardin?
- ‘No, Mimi! She is the directress of a maison de couture, and the wife of Hervé
Alphand, who was our ambassador to the United States and is now at the Quay.’
- ‘What quay?’
- ‘At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mimi. Or simply the Quay…’
Oh, it is so difficult in Paris! Here, they use different words even when speaking about
the same thing!
Monsieur Cardin comes to get me and himself introduces me to the guests. They are all
sitting at little tables, just like we in our time sat in the ‘Beer Palace', only here, naturally,
everything is much more chic. I am greeted with applause, everyone murmurs,
appreciatively I think. I begin with the song ‘Je sais comment’.
After each song I look at uncle Jo out of the corner of my eye. Everything is going well.
I sing five songs, I don’t doubt that I could have sung a sixth…
M. Cardin takes me around to all the tables. There are princesses, princes, ministers,
social lions and… Juliette Achard, russet-haired like Nadine, with a surprising facial
colour. She embraces me effusively, saying that I moved her deeply, and I feel
overwhelmed by her perfume. Excellent. I have conquered ‘all Paris’. My black ‘pensioner’
dress, as a journalist described it – there were many journalists there – must contrast
drastically with the fancy toilettes of the ladies.
- ‘Wouldn’t you rather be dressed by a more fashionable tailor?’ Asks me Madame
Achard.
I redden from shame. And with great difficulty stammer:
- ‘Monsieur Féraud is a fashionable tailor… but I know, dresses don’t look very good on
me.’
Nicole Stark had once told me this. Then, her words had hurt me. Little by little the
wound scabbed over. But at least it provided me with a good response to an embarrassing
question…

Today is a big day. I am going to the Father. The Father of song: Maurice Chevalier.
The car crossed the park of Saint-Cloud, and, arriving at Marnes-la-Coquette, took a forest
path uphill, skirted around the villa and stopped before a white façade with green shutters,
decorated with bronze lanterns.
The door shines dully with frosted glass. We ring. A respectable-looking maid opens
the door; the butler takes us through the hall, where the guests are met by a life-sized
portrait of Chevalier. And Maurice Chevalier himself, with a surprisingly fresh face, a pin
with a pearl in his tie, awaits us in the salon, surrounded by his friends: Félix Paquet and
his spouse Maryse, and his secretary with his wife Madeleine. They are all smiling
cheerfully, as is the master of the house, who hugs and kisses me.
- ‘Ah! So that is what the little one is like! And notice I didn’t add ‘Piaf’. Because there
is a big difference between you two. Piaf took the dark sidewalk of life, and you, Mireille,
will follow the sidewalk of light.’
In one phrase he traced my life for me…
- ‘In a few words you managed to say to her what I’ve been trying to make her
understand from the beginning,’ says Johnny, beaming.
- ‘How long have you worked with her?’
- ‘Six weeks.’
- ‘Only?! Well, it seems you’re not losing any time. I watched her performance on TV, I
liked it a lot.’
I can’t lower my eyes from his, so blue, his photogenic smile. And this voice, with its
pure Parisian accent, which I involuntarily begin to imitate!
–‘I heard that she will soon appear on The Eddie Sullivan Show? That’s fantastic!’
- ‘Yes, on the third of March.’
- ‘We’ll be in America at the same time. I’m departing for Puerto Rico on the twelfth of
February. Imagine, I’m going to have to replace Jimmy Durante there, who is seventy-three
years old. An amateur, in other words! Then I’m going to Chicago, Dallas, Houston…
she’ll do all that one day too, the little one! You’ll conquer the world with your charming
face yet, Mireille! I confess, I’m amazed that they decided to invite me, in spite of my age.
After all, I am seventy-eight! In my time I thought: I’ll clear the way for the new
generation. I have to say I felt its approach back in ’57… I already seemed old-fashioned
then. It didn’t surprise me. And suddenly they invite me to America. I’ll have to change not
only my surroundings, but also certain views. To America! All you can do is wonder!
Interest in me is renewed! And they’re offering me a contract. At my age! They’re giving
me the opportunity to make a film with Gary Cooper, with the little Leslie Caron, with
Walt Disney… I am becoming renowned around the world like I have never been before.
They are again summoning me onstage! I am preparing a new solo concert. It sounds dumb,
but only at seventy-eight years of age did I receive my highest praise from the critics! So
you can see for yourself, Mireille, what a rotten profession you have. You think that you
have discovered all the secrets, and then… sudden falls and flights catch you by surprise!’
Chevalier invites me to look around the house.
- ‘Have you already been to a museum? (I shake my head negatively.) Well, I have
something like it here! Are you going to Brussels? You’ll probably want to see the ‘Peeing
Boy’ there. Then again, perhaps you won’t have time for that. People don’t understand that
we have to choose: to go to a foreign country as a tourist or as an artist! When you have to
go on stage each evening, you have no strength left to climb bell towers and find the best
place to observe the city. In a word, the ‘Peeing Boy’ is a bronze manikin, a kind of
fountain, from which a stream of water falls to the ground. The Belgians decorated him
during celebrations. And I… what year was it in, Félix? Oh yes, in 1949. Well, I dressed
this statue in a tuxedo and a straw hat. A huge crowd gathered round. So as a mark of
respect, the Belgians gave it, this little bronze statue, to me. It makes you laugh!’
- ‘Looking at it I thought of my little brother.’
- ‘But your brother doesn’t wear a straw hat. And likely doesn’t walk around in a tuxedo
either?’
- ‘No, but he’s got everything else…’
Everyone laughs.
- ‘You know, Mireille, when Aznavour’s brother-in-law, Garvarentz, brought me the
music for ‘Twist of the straw hat’, I thought: ‘This time I’ve caught it.’ And then – by the
way, don’t forget this, Mireille, in your profession you have to learn constantly – I went to
the Opera to take lessons! It sounds odd, but the thing is that they have a wonderful jazz
dance teacher, a negro called Gene Robinson. The next day, in the morning, I went to
Olympia to listen to Johnny Halliday. But my biggest surprise wasn’t Halliday. It was that
during the interval some youths recognised me and said: ‘Come, Maurice, let’s do the
twist!’’
Showing me different objects, he tells me an interesting story about each one. In a case
he has the key to the city of Washington, which he received three years ago; he also has a
warrior made from pure gold, leaning on his sword – it is a kind of prize he received to
mark half a century of artistic activity. Another golden statuette – a Muse holding a crown
in her hand – was given to him in Hollywood… then he shows me photographs of
Eisenhower, the Queen of England and Marlene Dietrich, with dedications on them.
- ‘Ah, Marlene! I never was indifferent to her!’
Stopping before the portrait of an old man, I ask Chevalier whether it is one of his
ancestors. He answers that no, it is a Picasso. Johnny comes to my rescue, saying that there
is much I do not know, not having been anywhere, and that my knowledge is limited to the
school certificate.
- ‘I understand that!’ Remarks Maurice. ‘My dear Mimi, do you know at what age I
performed in the Casino des Tourelles, earning three franks a day? I was only thirteen and a
half years old! So I most certainly didn’t learn everything I know at school!’
He asks me to describe in detail my life, family, mother… and then he takes me to a
large portrait, gleaming with polish. On it is the mother of Maurice, a handsome old lady
with a delicate face and the same shining blue eyes as her son; a little hat sits on her snow-
white hair. Chevalier gently takes me by the arm and leads me to the park. There we take a
walk together. He says that I must come here when good weather sets in… among the
greenery hides a stage, built on his orders…
- ‘Will artists perform here?’
- ‘Yes, why not? And if you want, they’ll sing too. I like to walk here by myself and
enjoy nature… by the way, each should seek to sing the songs which especially suit them.’
I say that Aznavour is already writing songs for me.
- ‘Yes, Aznavour is a nice guy! I especially like him for his stamina and courage. Once
he performed ‘Tant de monnaie’ in my presence; Parisian boys threw small coins onstage
and yelled: ‘Pick it up and get lost!’ Charles didn’t bat an eyelid and continued to sing. I
told him then: ‘You’ll achieve success!’ But inside I thought: it’s not so easy! And later,
when I was going through a rough patch, I found out that at one dinner party many artists
spoke contemptuously of me – you’ll learn yourself that this happens often in Paris – and
only Aznavour took my side, declaring: ‘Don’t speak nonsense! Each one of you owes him
something. He was the first to establish the rhythm in French songs.’ Since then we have
become good friends. Stark did well to turn to him. You’re in good hands.’
- ‘Thank you, Monsieur Chevalier!’
I can’t say anything else to him. I would like to, but I don’t know what. But what I do
know is that his words calm me: he approves of Johnny, he approves of Aznavour, he
approves of my trip to America. If he, the great Chevalier, says so, then there is nothing to
be doubtful about. I thought so myself. But… as yet I feel very ignorant about life. I will
never forget my first meeting with Maurice Chevalier. From this day on I felt less insecure.
We joined the others, and everyone gathered at the front door. We said goodbye very
warmly and cheerfully. And suddenly the master of the house said to me in the most serious
tone:
- ‘You know, I was extraordinarily lucky: I was born to a poor family. From the earliest
times I had to help earn our bread, help my mother. And therefore the most important
things for me became my God, my mother and my work. Serving French song became a
kind of religion for me. And I think that you have stepped on the same path as I…’
I have the feeling that I am bathing in the rays of the sun. I feel that I can and am ready
to become the knight of songs, the knight that is pictured in my school history textbook.
Maurice has given me a motto which I must follow my whole life. I cannot read the future,
but I am certain that I have received a secure armour…
On the eve of his departure for America I call him on the phone.
- ‘Monsieur Chevalier, this is Mireille…’
- ‘Oh, it is so kind of you. Just call me Maurice. I would like to redo one of my songs in
your honour. You know it: ‘Mimi la blonde qui fait le tour du monde’? Only the wig needs
to be changed, and I’ll sing: ‘Je suis Mimi la brune qui depuis Trafalgar fait le tour de la
lune quatorze fois un quart’!’
And he laughs, we laugh. I tell him that I wish him a good journey, and ask:
- ‘Are you going by plane?’
- ‘At my age, Mimi, there is no time to go by boat.’

My first disc: Oui je crois

And I have no time even to catch my breath. I never thought that a small disc could
demand so much work. Johnny carefully listened to all the songs he was offered and chose
four of them. They must surely be those written by Aznavour? But Stark enlightens me.
They aren’t finished yet. Songs don’t make themselves, like pancakes! It is possible to
create a song in a day, but sometimes it is worked on for ten years. And even when it is
finished, there is no guarantee that it will be successful.
- ‘Why not?’
- ‘Because. You can throw seeds around you by handfuls and not grow a single flower…
but you know, someone sent me a song and it… well, we need to see him.’
He lives in Pigalle, in a very small, bare room. God knows I have experience of poor
homes. But this I have never seen before. Does it speak of stark poverty? One can only
guess… I can’t really see anything in this room because it is painted completely black: the
walls, ceiling, furniture, shuttered window. And to light everything – if you can call it light!
– there is only a single red lightbulb. Had I submitted to my fear I would already have been
downstairs on the sidewalk. But Johnny behaves as though we are in Pierre Cardin's salon.
The appearance of the owner matches the room: he has black hair and eyes. In a muted
voice he explains to us that he can only write music at night, but it disturbs his neighbours;
his way out was to darken the room, and now he can work during the day without bothering
anyone.
- ‘There is another possibility – to cover the accordion with a blanket, but you can’t do
much work then!’
He picks up his instrument and begins to sing: ‘C’est ton nom qui berce mes jours et
mes nuits…’
This haunting music enchants me. He explains that the words to the song were written
by Françoise Dorin:

C’est ton nom qui partout me poursuit


C’est ton nom qui fait maintenant que j’oublie
Tous les noms qui ont rempli ma vie…

- ‘It’ll do!’ Declares Johnny.


That is how Francis Lai becomes not only my first composer but also ‘my’ accordionist.
With deep emotion I find out that in the last two years of Edith Piaf’s life he didn’t part
from her.
‘Emporte-moi’, ‘Le Petit Brouillard’, ‘Le Droit d’aimer’, ‘Roulez tambours’, ‘Le
Rendez-Vous’, ‘C’était pas moi’, ‘Les Gens’, ‘L’Homme de Berlin’… all these songs are
his.
- ‘Did you know him, Johnny?’
- ‘Yes. But I didn’t know that he is the son of a gardener. Like me.’
That is how our little society of Southerners was formed. It was at that time that
Aznavour sent us the conductor of his orchestra, Paul Mauriat, a native of Marseilles. As
Johnny jokes, you only have to listen to us talk, and at once you'll scent the odour of garlic!
This slender young man with smooth hair and a little moustache writes strong, broad, richly
orchestrated music. To the words of André Pascal he wrote for me ‘Mon credo’:

Oui je crois
qu’une vie ça commence avec des mots d’amour…

But what is happening with me? Perhaps it’s to do with the fact that Francis awakens in
me the image of Piaf, dear to my heart? I learn easily ‘C’est ton nom’, but I get stuck on
‘Mon credo’. Why? Maybe because the name of the song seems to me sacrilegious? Or
maybe I am hampered by the repetition of ‘I believe’: it has nothing to do with the words ‘I
believe in God’, which I say gladly. One way or the other, I cannot learn it. Each time I
have to sing ‘Mon credo’, my throat begins to hurt. Johnny is beside himself.
- ‘But it’s true, Johnny, I really do have a sore throat.’
- ‘No, it’s not true! It’s here that’s the problem!’
And he hits his forehead.
The big day of recording approaches. I am alarmed. There are fifteen, then fourteen,
then thirteen days left…
- ‘Attention, Mimi! The countdown has begun. We’ve already hired the studio. It’s too
late to turn back, the disc must be ready by our departure for Brussels.’
In the meantime, Nadine is triumphant. She has found an apartment not far from the
house where Stark lives with his family. It is for lease, with furniture, and looks very nice:
there is a dining room, two bedrooms and a bathroom, which seems to me enormous (it
even has a window!). Nadine has also hired a young maid: she is to look after
Mademoiselle Mathieu.
It seems that nothing will stop me from working here in peace. But no, fear stops me.
The mere thought that the maid, having finished work, will leave and I will be left alone…
Nadine takes the trouble to explain to M. Stark that I am not used to living alone. I
simply can’t. It’s beyond me. He is stunned. So many young women crave independence
and want to live away from their families! Live their own lives!
- ‘I know, I know, but it’s not for me. I am very happy, uncle Jo, but I still need a house,
a family,’ I say, barely holding back tears. ‘If I remain alone in this apartment I will feel
like an orphan. I was fine with you…’
- ‘But you can’t stay at my house, Mireille, think! You’ll be visited by poets, musicians,
colleagues, important people, reporters… you need to have your own home. Believe me,
you’ll be happy and proud of it yet.’
- ‘I don’t think so.’
- ‘All right. In that case we’ll discuss it in Avignon.’
I hadn’t been in Avignon for two months. The grand welcome the simple worker of a
bankrupt envelope factory received surpassed anything she could have imagined: there was
a reception in the town hall! M. Henri Duffaut, the mayor, made a speech:
- ‘From now on our city is famous not only for the bridge across the Rhône and the
Papal palace, but also for you!’
The fanfare accompanies me to the theatre next door, where I give out autographs.
Excited young people carry me on their shoulders, as though I had won a football match. I
am especially touched by Mme Julien – she comes here to hug her ‘little lazybones’.
- ‘Do you know how I encourage my students now? I tell them about you!’
- ‘You can’t use me as an example!’
- ‘Yes I can, Mireille. Not everyone finds learning easy. You showed that it is possible
to achieve success by developing your gift.’
With each day I become more and more certain that I would never have achieved
anything without Johnny. And now a family conference is being held in our house. But first
they have to make nine-year-old Régis shut up, not without some difficulty, because he
categorically wants to tell us why he wants to be a footballer, while his older brother Roger
declares that when he grows up he’ll be a baker, ‘because everyone needs bread’.
- ‘Let’s return to Mireille, however,’ says uncle Jo. ‘She doesn’t want to live in Paris by
herself.’
- ‘Naturally she can’t live by herself!’ Says Mama. ‘But I can’t come to live with her,
leaving my husband, the babies and my other daughters, who are even younger than she.’
- ‘Perhaps my sister Irène…’ Papa enters the conversation.
- ‘Oh yes! Auntie!’
I have always loved my aunt – my godmother, who has not lived an easy life.
- ‘Do you understand what you’re asking of your sister? For you daughter she has to
leave her son!’
- ‘But her son is an adult. He has two children of his own.’
- ‘Plus she has a job.’
- ‘She won’t be sitting there with nothing to do. I think it’s much more interesting to
help Mireille with her performing career than wreck your back at the eau-de-Javel factory.
- ‘She’s worked there for twenty-five years, everyone respects her!’
- ‘Well, do you think they won’t respect her in Paris?!’
And soon Aunt Irène is coming off the train at the Lyon station.
She has been given a detailed description of Nadine: this red-haired woman will meet
her in a blue coat, with a bouquet of roses in her hands. Nadine herself had immediately
recognised my auntie, a small woman, clean as a whistle, with unusual, rarely seen violet
eyes.
My auntie likes the apartment very much, especially the kitchen. She is after all a
skilled cook…
- ‘You won’t have to concern yourself with the house here, auntie. I have a maid!’
My aunt is, however, very meticulous, and unstoppable. She organises the apartment,
buys cupboards, orders wardrobes to be put in. And we talk, we talk, we talk.
- ‘You talk too much, Mireille. You must go to bed, it’s necessary for your voice to
sound good. You are after all recording a disc tomorrow.’
Johnny has already instructed her!
And tomorrow comes.
- ‘If you had only seen it, auntie! A whole orchestra for me alone! Forty musicians and
eight choristers! The recording was made in a studio which is ten times larger than the
whole of our apartment! Everyone behind their music stands, and Paul Mauriat on the
conductor’s platform. Just imagine! It was beautiful! ‘My’ orchestra! My God, I was so
excited… I sometimes laughed and sometimes cried, forgetting myself. It was a much
bigger shock than the day I first went before an audience. If you only knew what a difficult
thing a recording is! The musicians keep on repeating different sections… they have to stop
because of tricks of the notes, can you believe it? And they constantly correct things on
their music… it’s such hard work!’
- ‘What about you, did you sing?’
- ‘Not yet. I was only listening to ‘my’ orchestra and ‘my’ choristers, to commit
everything to memory. I’ll begin singing tomorrow.’
- ‘In that case, go to bed. You have to look after your voice.’
The next day the studio is empty. Where have they all gone? Perhaps it’s a strike? No,
Johnny explains. It turns out the musicians have finished their work. My turn has come. In
the glass cage there are only Paul Mauriat, the sound technician and Johnny. I am alone in
the huge studio, in some kind of helmet and with earphones on. I listen to the sound of the
orchestra.
- ‘This helmet bothers me!’
- ‘You’ll get used to it.’
If I get used to it, it won’t be soon. The helmet gets in my way. And then again I like to
sing before an audience. I have always had one: my brothers and sisters, my friends, the
neighbours’ children, various acquaintances. How wonderful everything was in Olympia:
musicians behind me, applauding along with the audience before me… but to sing just like
that, for no one, standing before the microphone – it’s not right, it confuses me.
- ‘But you’re singing for many thousands of people, Mireille, remember it once and for
all.’
Performing in Télé-Dimanche, I barely thought about the microphone. But here it is a
different story. It sticks up in front of my nose, I can't move my eyes from the glass cage,
my ears are squeezed by the helmet, there are cables everywhere, and I imagine that I am
turning into some kind of machine.
- ‘Stop! Mireille, you’re not doing it right. Start again.’
- ‘Stop! You’re out of tune.’
- ‘Stop! You’re behind. What are you waiting for?’
- ‘Stop! Where are you hurrying to?!’
- ‘Stop! What have you sung? I didn’t understand a thing. You’re muttering I don’t
know what!’
And so hour after hour. Each phrase. I start again. And again. And again.
- ‘Please, one more time from the beginning, Mireille.’
When Johnny is quiet, Paul pitches in:
- ‘Keep the rhythm, Mireille.’
- ‘Two eighths, Mireille. La, la, la…’
- ‘Don’t yell so, Mireille. Listen to the music.’
No, I would never have believed that it is so painful to record a disc. I understand well
that it must be perfect, because when you sing in a hall the excited audience can forgive
you your mistakes. But if I haven’t yet achieved perfection perhaps it’s too early to be
recording a disc?
- ‘This disc must come out, Mireille. Without it you don’t really exist. You are already
at the back of the hall. The public is forgetting you. What is the ‘little Mathieu’ today? A
young woman who has won the contest Télé-Dimanche and performed in Olympia for two
weeks. But that’s nothing. You were only heard by thirty thousand people.’
- ‘Don’t fourteen million TV viewers count?’
- ‘Since then they have seen and heard many other singers. To keep afloat you urgently
need a disc. And if it doesn’t appear in six months you’ll be forgotten.’
I know that he is right.
The next day things go just as badly. From eight in the morning until midday I sing
‘Mon credo’ again and again. At each phrase I am stopped, and I sing it again.
- ‘Oui, je crois qu’on pourra mêler nos larmes et nos joies…’
- ‘Stop. Mireille! You’re cold. Where are your tears? Where are your joys?’
There’s no lack of tears. They stream down my cheeks. I’m not going to make it. I take
off the earphones. Silence reigns in the studio. Only my sobs and my efforts to quell them
can be heard… but this is simply incredible… whistling comes from the glass cage… yes!
Uncle Jo is whistling! Paul is silent. The sound technician unfurls a newspaper. They are
waiting for me to relax. As though my tears were so much rain!
The minutes pass. Time is needed for me to calm down. I dig in my bag, I take out a
handkerchief, I blow my nose. In the glass cage, no one moves. I clear my throat and put
the earphones back on.
- ‘I am ready!’
Johnny stops whistling, the technician puts away the newspaper. The music begins.
Paul conducts the beats and gives me a sign. This time I successfully finish the song.
- ‘Enough for today,’ Johnny’s voice sounds through the glass. ‘We’ll begin again
tomorrow.’
‘Oui, je crois’ - yes, I believe - that without the love, kindness and tenderness of Auntie
I would never have managed to finish this song!
Finally ‘Mon credo’ has been recorded. I hope that the song ‘C’est ton nom’, which I
know well, will emerge by itself. I hope too much…
- ‘Stop, Mireille! ‘C’est ton nom qui berce mes jours et mes nuits’. We’re hearing
‘verce’. Articulate the words more clearly. We’ll begin everything again.’
Francis Lai tries to encourage me:
- ‘Don’t be disappointed, Mimi, it happens to all singers. Then they take the better parts
and glue them together, and it sounds fine!’
But nothing’s fine! The thing is that we didn’t finish in the allotted time and now we
have to pay extra for taking up the studio longer than was agreed. Uncle Jo doesn’t say
anything to me, but I find out about it from Nadine. Barclay is not only the distributor, he is
the producer. In the evening, at home, I have a worried expression.
- ‘Uncle Jo put a bet on me, like on a racehorse, and what if I don’t reach the finish
line?’
- ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry, you will,’ Auntie calms me. ‘You’re our Roquépine!’ (A
famous racehorse who in those times held victory after victory).
Nonetheless now for several days uncle Jo has a wrinkle on his forehead. But it turns
out that I wasn’t the cause. Things are much worse… in the office on Avenue Wagram
Nadine tells me that Johnny has, not for the first time, gone to Avenue Gabriel, to the
United States embassy, to apply for visas.
- ‘Why hasn’t he received them?’
- ‘Because consent to your performance in the States still hasn’t been received.’
She explains to me that the Americans stick closely to the rules in these matters. Even
to perform once in such a well-known show as The Eddie Sullivan Show, each foreign artist
must receive special permission. Johnny returns, and by his face we understand that consent
still hasn’t been granted…
To tell the truth, I don’t realise all the importance of what is happening. And with great
pleasure I go to Brussels, where I again meet Sacha Distel and Dionne Warwick, feeling as
though I am once more diving into the atmosphere which reigns in Olympia.
The Ancienne Belgique is an old theatre, holding far from the last place in the history of
music hall; it is full of shadows, frescoes and portraits.
- ‘Today I can say that everyone from Chevalier to Distel have been here,’ says the
director, M. Mathonet.
I walk past the long row of photographs hung on the walls.
- ‘Oh, The Beatles! I adore them!’
Together with Elvis they are the only English-speaking musicians that I know.
- ‘But I don’t like this one!’
Uncle Jo looks at me sternly and angrily:
- ‘Do you know Trini Lopez?’
- ‘No.’
- ‘Have you seen his film ‘Made in Paris’?’
- ‘No.’
- ‘Have you seen him onstage?’
- ‘No.’
- ‘Then why don’t you like Trini Lopez?’
- ‘I like Sacha Distel more. I‘d love to listen all day when he plays the guitar.’
Uncle Jo explodes, but without raising his voice:
- ‘Trini Lopez hasn’t done you any harm! I wish with all my heart that one day you have
the name he does! And I also wish that no one will ever say: ‘I don’t like Mireille
Mathieu!’ You really are a child! Imagine it if some reporter heard your words, and
tomorrow people would read in the newspaper: ‘Mireille Mathieu doesn’t like Trini
Lopez!’ What will you look like then?’
He doesn’t have seem very happy at all.
- ‘You don’t really know anything, Mireille! And when you don’t know anything the
wisest thing to do is keep quiet.’
- ‘But I only said it to you.’
- ‘Even that you shouldn’t’ve done. You have never heard me say anything bad about
the people in our profession: it is a very difficult one.’
- ‘But you don’t like everyone, either.’
- ‘I never say anything about such a person, I try not to think about them and never have
anything to do with them. That’s all.’
He really is displeased. In a minute he tells me that the musicians will be rehearsing
with the sound technician during the day, so it would be good if I had a rest now. He
instructs me to be escorted… but at the thought that I will be alone in the hotel room,
although a quite comfortable one, a lump comes to my throat. With the press-attaché of the
company ‘Barclay’ I go to the bar of the hotel ‘L’Amigo’ and drink fruit juice there. A very
kindly barman starts a conversation with us. His name is M. Myrtil. I confess to him that
when I’m not singing I am very bored, and that if I had known that I would be free from
rehearsal during the day, I would have spent the time profitably, for example by singing
something for children, since I like performing for them. M. Myrtil says that the ‘Bees’
would be beside themselves with joy if Mireille Mathieu came to visit them. He is talking
about a home for crippled children. Is it far from here? Not very. Half an hour by car. And
now we are already on our way.
M. Myrtil must have warned them about our arrival, because the moment the door
opens, they are there, the little ones, and…
Dear God! I will not forget this for the rest of my life! I could not even imagine
something like this… crutches, prosthetic legs, twisted arms, damaged legs, huge, deformed
heads… the shock was so enormous that I couldn’t help myself: I burst into tears. Small
hands touch me: a tiny boy is trying to comfort me. He can’t walk.
- ‘Polio… and he’s an orphan,’ someone explains.
Oh, how I would like to hug him, comfort him, take him away with me… I
involuntarily remember my little brothers, much more happy… I lift the child up and sit
him on my knees. I ask him his name.
- ‘Bruno’.
- ‘Well, Bruno, now we’re all going to sing: ‘Alouette, gentille alouette…’
Finally I exhaust my repertoire of children’s songs and begin to think about leaving.
Bruno’s not letting me go. I promise him that I’ll come back.
(I kept my word. Each time I find myself in Brussels I visit the ‘Bees’. From the most
distant lands I send postcards to M. Myrtil with requests to hug them all. And not long ago,
when I performed in the Congress Palace, a young man came to see me backstage… I
recognised him immediately by his eyes. It was Bruno! He had had treatment and could
walk again).
I come on time to rehearsal, where uncle Jo is waiting for me. I go onstage. I perform
‘Jezebel’. As yet everything is going well. But the moment I begin to sing ‘Le Noël de ma
rue’, I imagine the sad eyes and faces of the little ones. And I suddenly fall silent.
- ‘Please excuse me…’
The musicians stop playing. Uncle Jo comes up to me, he is disappointed but
affectionate:
- ‘But look, Mimi, isn’t this what I was talking about this morning? Is that how you
prepare for your performance? It’s simply terrible that you suddenly have these moods…’
I shake my head energetically and tell him about my visit to the ‘Bees’. I wait for
Johnny to be angry… but he doesn’t say anything, only asks the musicians to wait five
minutes while I control myself, and gives me a clean handkerchief and a glass of water.
- ‘It’s all right,’ I whisper.
And then he says to me quietly:
- ‘You understand, Mimi, if this happened to you in public, it would be a real
catastrophe. Now you know why I insist that you rest before each performance.’
He is absolutely right. I am too excited and I can’t settle down. Uncle Coquatrix
encourages me: ‘It’ll be all right!’ That must mean that so far it hasn’t been.

Next to the Hotel Amigo, on the way to the wonderful Grand-Place, there is near the
wall a bronze statue, whose elbow gleams like the sun, because it is stroked by everyone
who passes by. I do not know the name of this saint, but, like all the saints, he must have
some virtues. M. Myrtil tells me that I must think of a wish while moving the palm of my
hand from the shoulder to the heel of the statue, pausing, naturally, at the elbow. My wish
is simple. I must perform well tonight.
This is a very kind saint. And here is the best proof of this – as soon as I appear onstage,
the audience greets me with applause. It seems even the public here are generous.
- ‘Thanks, little one. You’ve warmed the hall up well for us!’ Says one of the four
Brutos to me.
The great Aldo makes me laugh to the point of tears. When he introduces himself, he
miaows loudly! Naturally, I stay in the wings to listen to Dionne Warwick. Her voice is so
forceful and at the same time so velvety…
Standing next to me, Uncle Jo whispers:
- ‘Watch how she moves… watch closely. Looking at others you can learn the secrets of
the trade.’
Dionne is superb. She is wearing a tight, glittery dress. She is older than me by six
years and she has already acquired seventy pairs of shoes! At the very first rehearsal she
exclaimed, turning to me: ‘Oh! What a pretty little foot!’ I call her ‘caille’. She responds
with ‘darling‘. I don’t understand what she sings, but it sounds very beautiful: ‘Aye cray
aloun’…
- ‘You really must learn English,’ says to me Johnny.
- ‘Has permission arrived for us to go to America?’
- ‘No. Not yet.’
- ‘But I already know how to speak English.’
- ‘How do you know that?’
- ‘I’ve watched the films of Laurel and Hardy on television.’
And I carefully imitate Stan and Oliver in broken English. Johnny rolls his eyes up to
the ceiling. Sometimes he despairs of me.
On the first of March he says:
- ‘We’re not going, Mireille.’
- ‘We’re not going to America?!’
- ‘No. Can you imagine the scandal if you are sent home from the airport! You’ll be in a
terrible situation! They are serious about these things over there.’
- ‘But why don’t they give me permission? I love the Americans so much!’
- ‘They don’t know you at all. They told me: ‘We only give permits to exceptional
artists, to stars’. They demand proof that you have had important engagements. What can
we mention? Performances in Brussels, in four French cities and in Olympia, and your
name was always at the bottom of the bills.’
Stark calls Jack in New York and Teddy in London.
Jack Bat is a talent scout at The Eddie Sullivan Show, and Teddy Wimpress is a
manager. The former was alerted by the latter. A three-way telephone conversation then
takes place between them and Stark, from which it becomes clear that Jack wants to cancel
but Teddy doesn’t.
- ‘But one way or the other,’ says Stark, ‘it’s too late now, Jack. The permit won’t reach
us before our departure. And incidentally, they also demanded whether I knew who made
their minister get up from his bed at three a.m. regarding this permit. I replied that I had
nothing to do with it! All right. I agree, but at your risk and peril.’
- ‘We’re going?’
- ‘Yes, we’re going. But I’m not sure they’ll receive us!’
My last performance in Brussels occurrs on the second of March. And on the third we
leave Paris… I wonder what the weather is like in New York? Auntie is utterly calm, as
though we are talking about a trip from Marseilles to Avignon. After all, I am only going
for a few days. She won’t be accompanying me.
- ‘By your return I’ll have finished arranging the apartment!’
This is my first long journey. On the plane with me are uncle Jo and some of his
friends: Jan, one of a duet; the other half, his cousin Jil, stayed in Paris. Jan will write the
words for my songs.
- ‘You understand, the wave of ‘yeah, yeah’ has started all over again!’
Together they have composed songs for Johnny (Halliday): ‘Depuis qu’ma môme’, ‘Kili
watch’… he is very funny. Teddy, the manager who organised my contract with Eddie
Sullivan, is also flying with us, as is Eddie Barclay, who has brought five members of his
staff, two photographers and the conductor François Rauber. The steward offers us
champagne… but everyone is a little on edge because of the permit. Except me. I laugh, I
eat, I sleep. Dimly I hear the voice of uncle Jo: ‘She is utterly carefree!’ And that of
Barclay, who says placidly: ‘If they send her back… we’ll return with the next flight.’

My discovery of America

I exit the plane. They photograph me. The little Mimi and the big gentlemen.
- ‘But I won’t understand a word, Johnny!’
- ‘You say ‘hello’ and you smile.’
The immigration office. Jack Bat signals to us from far away. Something like:
- ‘Calmly. Don’t hurry.’
- ‘What is he trying to say?’ I ask.
- ‘That we’ll have to sleep here!’
Almost all of our group passes without delays. Everyone has tourist visas. No problem.
My turn. The police officer:
- ‘Miss Ma-ti-ou?’
- ‘Hello!’ (And a smile).
He murmurs something and hands me… the permit. Wonderful!
- ‘Mireille! Stay calm! He wants you to return to the other side of the barrier… and go
through again with your permit and your passport.’
- ‘But it was he who…’
- ‘Don’t argue. Go.’
- ‘Are you going with me?’
- ‘No. You’ll go alone and come back, looking as though you have just come off the
plane. That’s the rule.’
On exiting the airport I am again photographed. With Jack, Jan, François and the others.
They all sigh in relief.
By what miracle was the permit obtained? I find out later. It was thanks to M. Hervé
Alphand, who, five months previously, had left the position of the French Ambassador in
the United States and based himself in our Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and who only a
month ago attended the reception at the embankment of Anatole-France. It seems it was he
who woke the American minister. I did well that night to sleep in the bed of Pierre Cardin!
I sang well and impressed His Excellency, which is why he confirmed that I have the
reputation of a star in France!
- ‘Remember!’ Said Johnny. ‘This permit doesn’t give you the right to one thing: to
think you really are a star! Because you have not yet become one. But we act as though you
are a star in the hope that one lovely day you do turn into one.’
This phrase is exactly in the style of uncle Jo. It makes me both hot and cold, as they
say in our parts. And all his conversations invariably end with the phrase: ‘But it will be
very hard!’
- ‘Hello, Mama! There is a lot of noise in the drugstore… can you hear me?’
- ‘Yes, I can hear you, but there is a crowd of people around me! Well, how did you find
New York?’
- ‘It’s big!’
- ‘Do you like it there?’
- ‘Not really! I constantly have to tilt my head up, my neck hurts.’
- ‘Are there many people?’
- ‘Plenty. But all the same I keep asking myself whether there are enough people to fill
all these skyscrapers. Those who are small, like us, feel like gnomes!’
- ‘Do they have nice streets?’
- ‘Of course. But there are no dogs.’
- ‘Imagine that… they have no dogs! Yes, this country isn’t for our Youki.’
- ‘Perhaps I will see them. I have only just arrived, I’m unpacking my suitcase.’
- ‘Are you well accommodated?’
- ‘Oh yes! It’s as though I live in a palace, I have a magnificent room in the Waldorf
Astoria. And I won’t be afraid here, because uncle Jo has been put in the room next door,
which has a salon to receive reporters, and on the other side is Jan. But, you know, my little
radio isn’t working.’
- ‘Did you break it?’
- ‘No. But you understand, France is so far away from here…’
Uncle Jo returns me to the real world:
- ‘Hang up, Mimi, they await us in the restaurant for breakfast.’
- ‘Sorry, Mama, I have to hang up. Monsieur Sullivan is waiting for us in the restaurant
for breakfast.’
- ‘At this hour?’
- ‘It’s midday here, Mama.’
- ‘Midday?! And night is falling here!’
Yes, it is the wrong side of the world and I am completely disoriented. Business
meetings await Johnny, and he entrusts Jan to take me round the city. On return he asks me
for my impressions. I hesitate with my answer. He hurries me. Were I by myself, I would
immediately buy a return plane ticket. There can be no talk about walking on the sunny side
of the street here! The houses are so tall that the sun’s rays don’t reach the sidewalk.
He tells me that New York always has this impression on Europeans who come here for
the first time. But it is only a first-day malaise; on the second day a person feels better, on
the third he begins to say: ‘I like New York’, and on leaving, he swears that he’ll return.
- ‘Well, what else did you do in the city?’
- ‘I also ate popcorn, then Jan photographed me before the giant bronze Atlas, he is
made up of two ‘blocks’ (thus I learned a new word!), then I went inside St. Patrick’s
Cathedral for a short prayer, and a taxi took us to the Empire State Building – as Jan
explained, the tallest building in the world. At the hundred and second storey, we saw the
sun, and New York far below us. I looked for our skyscraper with the Waldorf… but there
were too many of them. I told Jan that I forgot my umbrella in Paris and we bought another
one in the neighbouring shop, Macy’s. My head spun there. The Lyons Station is nothing
compared to it. Jan found out for me: they have eleven million employees!’
Saying this, I laughed. (Uncle Jo looked at me with his blue eyes. He apparently
couldn’t see what was funny in this).
- ‘Then we took a taxi again and here I am, but my legs are still hurting.’
- ‘All right,’ says Johnny, ‘the holidays are over now. Do you know what time it is
now?’
- ‘Seven in the evening.’
- ‘No, it’s one a.m. Therefore a light dinner and bed, immediately. You’ll need your
voice tomorrow. Where did that scarf come from?’
- ‘It has an image of the Statue of Liberty on it. I found it at Macy’s.’
- ‘You can put it where you like, but not around your neck. You must get rid of this
habit, Mireille. I’ve already asked you. Lord God blessed you with a magnificent voice.
Don’t treat it as though it isn’t fragile, or it will become thus…’

The symbol of the studio C.B.S. is an eye. A large eye which is displayed on the
company’s building. This consists of two sections, but both face onto a street with one-way
movement, so we had to make a detour. On the way, in the limousine, Johnny explains to
me: I mustn’t forget that I have a unique opportunity, that the only French performers
invited to 'TheEddie Sullivan Show’ were Maurice Chevalier and Montand, that even
Aznavour hasn’t appeared in it even once, that this is the most popular show in which
appear the most popular singers; proof of this is that today there will be many of the stars,
including the great actor Ray Milland. This name is unfamiliar to me. But Johnny knows
him. Or rather not, he doesn’t know him personally, he has never met him, but he has seen
his films. And speaks of him like a fan! He tells me in detail about his movie ‘Lost
Weekend’, for which he received an Oscar… Johnny tells me that he has also acted with
Paulette Goddard and Ginger Rogers. All this tells me nothing. And do I really have to
remember it?
The studios of C.B.S. don’t at all resemble Theatre 102. There are half a dozen giant
cameras, like large insects surrounded by agitated ants: technicians, musicians,
costumers… everything is much bigger, and I feel smaller and smaller, and ever more
transparent.
- ‘Hello! Monsieur Stark? I am Mr. Stark.’
This is the co-producer of the programme, and he bears the same name as uncle Jo.
- ‘But no, Mimi, I assure you, we’re not cousins. We are not at all related.’
It must be true, because Johnny always has a small cross hanging from his neck, and
through the open collar of Mr. Stark’s shirt I see a Star of David. Mr. Stark is falling off his
feet to serve M. Stark. He finds M. Ray Milland and whispers into his ear, telling him about
this young French girl who has arrived with a dozen companions. Johnny is finally able to
shake the hand of his idol. I see that he is very emotional. He gives me the signal to
approach and introduces me to him. I vigorously shake the star’s hand:
- ‘Hello, Monsieur Milande.’
I feel that Johnny is embarrassed. He has to explain in English that I left my small home
village not very long ago. But the great actor seems very pleased.
- ‘Monsieur Milland says that you have a very pretty little face and that you ought to
make movies.’
Johnny is on cloud nine with happiness.
But he doesn’t stay there long. Because of me.
Mr. Bloch, the conductor of the orchestra, asks me: ‘In what key?’ I begin to understand
why Johnny took François Rauber with us: he responds for me, because ‘keys’ might as
well be Chinese for all I know of them. But what I understand at once is that the musicians
are superb. The orchestra plays for the second time, François remarks on my forte. The
lights are trained on me. M. Sullivan isn’t here, and it is his son-in-law who takes the
rehearsal.
- ‘Attention, Mimi! Sing as though you are on direct transmission!’
I make the sign of the cross. The introduction to ‘L’Hymne à l’amour’ is played, and…
I start late. Although I was observing François, standing next to the camera and counting
the beats for me. The musicians glance at each other. François explains to Mr. Bloch that I
am a debutante, that I have practically never been onstage, that I am very nervous, that I am
simply terrified of being in New York… we start again.
The prelude. This time I am so afraid that I start too soon. The musicians share another
look. François goes to Mr. Bloch. Johnny’s head appears.
- ‘What is it, Mireille?’
- ‘I don’t know. Let’s try again.’
I understand how tightly strung his nerves are. Mine also. Mr. Stark – the other one –
offers me a drink of something. I would like some water very much, my mouth has gone
dry.
The third attempt. I begin well. But I finish badly. I can’t take myself in hand. I catch
Teddy’s worried look. A voice saying I don’t know what comes from the loud-speaker.
- ‘What is he saying?’
- ‘That they can’t afford to lose time because the great artists (and among them, a
certain Diana Ross, as yet unknown to the public) are awaiting their turn; we’ll have to
return for rehearsal this afternoon.’
In the limousine:
- ‘You see what the Americans are like, Mimi. They are great professionals. One, two,
that’s it. François will rehearse with you at the hotel. Don’t cry, or have a good cry, if that
will help you. It’s not your fault. It is perhaps mine. I must have gone too fast…’
Eddie Barclay remains impassive behind his cigar:
- ‘It’s going very well. I’m inviting you all to dinner tonight!’
- ‘All right, but not for too long. She must sleep.’
On Saturday is the dress rehearsal and the recording of my two songs: ‘L’Hymne à
l’amour’ and ‘Mon credo’. This time, I commence and finish well. I would have liked to
see the face of Mr. Sullivan, but he stays invisible.
- ‘Is that better, Johnny?’
- ‘It’s not bad.’
To completely discharge the atmosphere, it is he who takes us all out to dinner. He
avoids popularly fashionable restaurants such as ‘La Fonda del Sol’ or ‘Hawaiian Room’
(‘No, no, nothing exotic! I want her in good shape for tomorrow!’). He rents a room in
‘Tavern on the Green’, ‘to reconcile her with New York’, he says. It’s in the heart of
Central Park, on a green lawn, away from the traffic. Only ancient-looking carriages passes
by from time to time. The chauffeurs park the limousines out of sight. It is not yet warm
enough to dine on the terrace, but the salon gives an incongruous view on a country
landscape in the midst of the city. In the distance tower the skyscrapers, all lit up like great
chandeliers. Teddy, Eddie, Jack, Jan, and of course Johnny do everything in their powers to
make me laugh and forget that tomorrow I will have to play my ‘American card’ in only a
few minutes.
Finally, I see Mr. Sullivan for the first time. He has a typical American smile. He has a
manner which makes you believe that you are one of the most important people in the
world. Without understanding English, I know that he will present me in such a way that I
will be obliged to ‘break the record!’, unless of course I am a flop: and here it comes: ‘the
little singer from France with a voice which reminds me of that of the great Edith Piaf…’
At the end, understanding that simply saying ‘hello!’ is not enough, I lift my hand to
my lips and say with my Southern accent:
- ‘I blow you a kiss…’
It seems incredible, but the evidence is indisputable: the programme had such a success
that C.B.S. is sent letters by courier, demanding my reappearance, I am asked for my
autograph on the sidewalk in front of the Waldorf, and people recognise me on the street.
- ‘Do you know how many spectators you had, Mimi? Ninety-eight million.’
- ‘Dear God…!’
I began to like New York!
Johnny took us to Radio City Music Hall where films and shows are constantly
alternating, such as that of the most famous dancing girls in the United States, ‘The
Rockets’. I try to count them, but I don’t get anywhere, as they move like one person.
Thirty two! Thirty six! Thirty five!
- ‘Surely not, Mimi, they dance in pairs.’
- ‘And how many seats are there in this hall?’
- ‘Six thousand two hundred.’
- ‘I would love to sing in such a huge hall one day…’
On returning to the hotel we find a surprise awaiting us: Bruno Coquatrix and his wife
are in New York for the recital of Charles Aznavour! And we are all going there! We must
support our countryman, although Charles had already made a great American career. His
discs are in the shops on Broadway. And to think that ‘mine’ hasn’t even appeared in Paris!
Charles has adapted the lyrics of his songs…
- ‘You see, Mimi, you must learn English,’ Johnny whispers to me.
In the same voice I reply:
- ‘I am already having enough trouble speaking French!’
And I laugh. This makes the row before us turn to look at me.
- ‘And you must learn not to laugh so loudly!’
After the concert we go to have dinner in ‘Sardi’, the artists’ restaurant where, after a
premiere, they all gather, awaiting the first morning papers with the comments of the
critics. I tell Charles, who has been to New York numerous times, that on arriving in this
large city I felt myself an insignificant bug.
- ‘But you had in you pocket an engagement for ‘The Eddie Sullivan Show’! Me, I came
here in ’47 – you had just been born then – armed with only my motto ‘to assimilate’. The
second time, five years after that, was a little better – I was Piaf’s stage manager and
lighting technician. And I also performed at the start of the concert – I raised the curtain.’
Bruno Coquatrix recalls how three years ago, he went to Carnegie Hall, and ceded his
place to his eminent American colleague, Schubert, a theatre performer. Eddie Barclay
remembers that they had to seat spectators on the stage, and that Charles sang with two
hundred people either side of him, like in the time of Molière…
I listen carefully and pray to the heavens that what enters my head stays there:
Molière’s times, Carnegie Hall, Schubert… how I need my ears and my eyes. With them I
remember, learn, remember some more… and learn good manners, too, how not to laugh
too loudly, not mix up the knives and forks, not drain my glass of water all at once. Ah! ah!
ah! ah!
- ‘What makes you laugh, Mireille?’
Shall I tell them, or shall I not? Too bad, I’ll tell them:
- ‘I think that this evening, at this table, I am not the only one to have nothing but a
school certificate…’
- ‘Very true,’ says Charles. ‘That’s why I always make spelling mistakes!’
- ‘Really?’ I say, delighted. ‘But then, how do you write?’
- ‘I write how I hear. That is the important thing. And as for spelling mistakes, there is
always some kind soul to correct me, when it isn’t my editor! What is important is not how
to write the word, it is the music of it.’
The next day, at the concert of James Brown, the lesson is very different. He is a young
Negro, all in white and in a trance, which he communicates to the entire hall. It seems the
boys and girls would climb the curtain if there had been one, they jump from their seats,
yelling, just barely contained by a straining line of policemen at the foot of the stage. From
time to time a bodyguard carries an inanimate body or hysterical girl out of the hall, like a
sack. I am terrified. If Mama saw this… she would want me to stop being a singer! But I
only want to sing to make people happy.
- ‘But he’s going to die onstage!’ Says Paulette Coquatrix.
We imagine him to be recuperating backstage. But, resurrected, he returns to take a
bow, throwing a glance at the audience, before disappearing again in the wings. Protected
by the bodyguards, we are hauled and pushed to the artists’ entrance; then to his dressing
room.
James Brown is perfectly composed, all smiles. Around him, everything is calmly
organised: a thermos for him, chairs for us; the costumer prepares his outfit for the coming
session… and James is putting curlers in his hair.
On exiting, Johnny tells me :
- ‘You have seen a master. He never lost control. His ‘madness’ was a masterpiece.’
- ‘I’m engaging him,’ says Bruno.
- ‘But he’ll break all the chairs in Olympia!’
Bruno responds that he’s used to it. Bécaud broke the first!
I am pensive. For me, this music resembles the music of the Devil.
As if in response to this thought, while we take a walk in Harlem on Sunday morning
we pass a church in Amsterdam Street, and we enter, Johnny and I, without knowing that
we’ll be treated to an extraordinary sight. I am astounded by the church itself first of all. It
doesn’t at all resemble our cathedrals, where you are surrounded by their shadows and their
lights: here, everything is lit up like a schoolroom. It has none of our silences either: here,
hundreds of Negros rhythmically clap their hands in time with the singing of the choir…
Our intrusion – the only whites there – seemingly passes unnoticed. Only a matron,
wearing a hat decked with amazing flowers, as are all the women there, slides over on her
bench and motions for us to sit. The singers’ voices are superb, profound, convincing. Even
without understanding the words, one can feel that they are praising God.
In the first row there are paralytics on stretchers, with their white-robed nurses and, in
front of them, children who raise their small voices in reciting psalms, sorry, ‘gospels’. The
rhythm accelerates, is amplified, the voice of the bishop is louder and louder, finally
stopping with a phrase which asks, as Johnny explains, for the Lord’s blessing… and,
suddenly, a little girl gets up and begins to dance, eyes raised to the ceiling, followed by
another, then another… it’s unbelievable, incredible… they dance with all their souls, like
me when I sang in the church of Notre-Dame during mass, taken by our priest M. Gontand.
On leaving, the bishop with curling white hair greets us. Johnny speaks with him,
introduces me, and translates:
- ‘Next time,’ he says to me, ‘you must sing with them.’
Yes. I decide to learn English on the spot! I would love to sing gospels…
When we come back to the hotel, Johnny tells me that I must pack. Are we going back
already?
- ‘No, we’re leaving for Hollywood!’
- ‘But it wasn’t on our itinerary?’
- ‘Now it is. We must strike while the iron still glows after 'The Eddie Sullivan Show’.’
That can easily be converted into a song. During the journey Jan made it into a rhyme,
and we all chorused it happily, though missing the voices of Coquatrix and Eddie Barclay,
who remained in New York. The first stop is Las Vegas, California, the pearl of Nevada:
- ‘Hello, Mama? Guess where I am? In Las Vegas! You know… the city of slot-
machines. It’s unbelievable, you come out of the plane, you are already on a carpet with
slot-machines on either side. They are everywhere, one cannot escape them. So far I’ve
won four dollars.’
- ‘How much is that in franks?’
- ‘I don’t know. But I used them to buy a lipstick, several postcards and a cap with stars
on it.’
- ‘Are you well accommodated?’
- ‘Oh yes! I have a large room, on one side is Jan’s, and on the other a salon to receive
reporters, and uncle Jo’s room. It’s a hotel the like of which you’ve never seen. They are all
like this here, with a casino and a theatre inside. We are where Line Renaud performed in a
variety show last year. Here the audience can eat and drink during a performance.’
- ‘And you’re going to sing there?’
- ‘No, but uncle Jo knows many people and he’s making contacts, he says.’
- ‘Is it a nice city?’
- ‘Uncle Jo says that it grows like a mushroom, my school textbook used the same
expression. That before there was nothing here and that on each visit one finds something
new. But you know, it’s not really a city, it’s an avenue! Imagine our Rue de la République,
but much bigger and with casinos everywhere. The lights, I don’t even know how to
describe them to you! It’s like shop windows at Christmas-time! And there are no clocks.’
- ‘No clocks?’
- ‘No. This way, in the casinos, one doesn’t know the time and keeps on playing and
playing… all the famous singers come to sing here: Dean Martin, Sinatra… I begin to
know them by their faces because the television here is on night and day.’
- ‘Night and day! But when do they sleep, these people? And what do you eat?’
- ‘There are all kinds of foods, even Chinese, if you want it. American food is lots of
meat and ice-cream of all sorts. There is also a strange dish: peanut butter.’
- ‘Don’t they have cows, then?’
- ‘Here, no, I don’t think so. All around us is desert. A pink desert with a mountain in
the distance. It is very beautiful when the sun sets…’
Johnny interrupts me:
- ‘Do you have any idea of the cost of a telephone call, Mimi?’
- ‘No.’
- ‘It’s expensive! So hang up, you can tell your mother all this later. Ask if everyone’s
well and say goodbye.’
- ‘Yes, uncle Jo. Is everyone all right in Avignon?’
- ‘Except Grandmama. She’s not too well. Papa is worried about her. Matite is still
sewing aprons. She would have preferred to sew dresses… Christiane is working hard at
the hospital. She knows how to make poultices well. The other day Rémi fell over, the poor
thing. If you had only seen how wonderfully she treated him: it was a marvel. Marie-France
has toothache, Réjane… Roger… Guy…’

My first steps in Hollywood


The luxurious hotels in which we stay change ceaselessly, none resembling the other.
The Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles seems an oasis of calm after the Dunes of Las
Vegas. But uncle Jo has his own ideas. He doesn’t rent rooms in this hotel, but in one of the
bungalows instead – a house with several rooms, a salon, a kitchen and a bar, all in the
midst of a jungle: palm trees, creepers, exotic plants, and when night falls, despite the little
lights here and there under the trees, it all seems gigantic, unfamiliar, bizarre.
So bizarre, in fact, that all night I fear to close my eyes. There are noises, cries emitted
by I don’t know what kind of beasts, and suddenly, something like a growl. A lion? I am
sure that it is a lion! The next morning when, in the salon, the servants wheel in little
breakfast-tables and uncle Jo calls me, I am still sitting on my bed, frozen with fear.
- ‘What’s happened?’
- ‘A lion…!’
I explain about the roar:
- ‘But you are imagining things! Ah! You really are the daughter of Tartarin de
Tarascon! Your lion, here he is!’
Jan arrives, stretching himself.
- ‘It was just him snoring!’
In daylight, the ‘jungle’ is reassuring, full of flowers, a solitary place, perfect for a
walk. But in Los Angeles, one doesn’t walk. One drives. Kilometres of beaches, kilometres
of avenues, kilometres of parks surrounding the villas of superstars, and above it all
‘HOLLYWOOD’ on the largest sign in the world: they have written this magic word on the
mountain!
My day stops being calm from the moment the great Joe Pasternak enters my humble
life. ‘Great’, but not in height. Johnny warns me:
- ‘You are going to meet a very, very big producer.’
- ‘Hello, Monsieur Pasternak!’
- ‘Hello! Mireille… call me Joe.’
M. Pasternak is no longer very young. He has a high forehead, because he now has little
hair, nearly transparent eyes that shine with mischief and a smile which lifts his
cheekbones. Perhaps this is because he doesn’t film anything but musical comedies.
Nothing else interests him. He speaks to us about them with great passion. It turns out he
has seen me on ‘The Eddie Sullivan Show’, found me very photogenic and decided to film
me.
- ‘But she doesn’t speak a word of English!’
- ‘She said ‘hello’ to me very nicely. She’ll learn it.’
He says that he has known many debutantes. He relates to Johnny how, twenty years
ago, he helped Deanna Durbin, whom he had ‘stolen’ from Metro Goldwyn Meyer, become
world-famous, and how, having returned to M.G.M., he had made the career of Kathryn
Grayson…
- ‘In ‘Holiday in Mexico’ I reunited her with three other debutantes: Jane Powell, Judy
Garland and Liz Taylor! Not bad, huh? And later I filmed her with Sinatra and Gene Kelly
in ‘Anchors Aweigh’…’
- ‘Isn’t that where Kelly dances with Jerry, the cartoon mouse?’
- ‘Technically, it was a trick. Have you seen the film, Johnny? Then I gave Kathryn
neither more nor less than Mario Lanza as a partner. I also arranged his debut on the
screen.’
- ‘Ah! Lanza!’
- ‘Yes. But his personality… not as wonderful as his voice! During ‘The Great Caruso’
things… arranged themselves. But then! Happily, he had recorded the songs for ‘The
Student Prince’ before I was obliged to dissolve his contract! And it was Edmund Purdom
– a charming boy! - who had appeared to sing. So everything went very well. It was also
me who made the debut of Carrol Baker in ‘Easy to Love’, with Esther Williams.’
All this went straight over the top of my head!
- ‘So, voilà, Johnny. With the little one I’ll do a remake of ‘A Star is Born’.’
- ‘But she has no experience…’
- ‘We’ll teach her to sing, to dance.’
- ‘But Judy Garland…’
- ‘That was twelve years ago, Johnny! It’ll take a year to prepare Mireille; another to
finish the film. I assure you, it’s a great idea!’
We are in his office, and if I understand correctly, he has been here for twenty-four
years, since well before I was born! He shows us several framed photographs: his stars…
Eleanor Powell, Lena Horne, Lucille Ball, June Allyson, Gloria DeHaven, all of them
beautiful, well dressed and made-up… could I also become like that? Who knows? Doris
Day in a circus, filming ‘Jumbo’. And here, Ann-Margaret in ‘Made in Paris’…
- ‘M. Pasternak asks if you go to the cinema?’
- ‘Yes, I have seen Fernandel and the Pagnol films.’
It’s Joe’s turn to be a little embarrassed. He puts his arm gently around my shoulders.
He can already see me as part of his ‘crew’. He proposes a tour of the studios the next day.
- ‘Are you happy, Johnny? I have two uncle Jos now!
- ‘That’s wonderful, Mireille. But don’t call him ‘uncle’. It might vex him, who knows!’
Los Angeles is the opposite of Las Vegas. There is the sea, superb beaches, a Chinese
pagoda which is the cinema where all the premieres of new films made in Hollywood take
place. And an incredible open-air theatre… the Hollywood Bowl (‘How many spectators,
Johnny?’ – ‘I don’t know, a hundred thousand perhaps…’). Oh! la la! To sing here, one
day…
The dream… the dream, I touch it when I touch one finger to the entrance to the city of
M.G.M., a real city with a hospital, its own museum and, of course, studios. And in a
studio, who is being filmed for Joe Pasternak? Elvis Presley! The Beatles and Elvis are the
only ones I know thanks to the ‘Bowling’ in Avignon. If only Françoise Vidal and the
others could see me now!
- ‘Elvis filmed ‘Girls Happy’ for me last year,’ says Joe, ‘and we are working this year
on ‘California Holiday’.’
Elvis suddenly appears, in flesh and blood, as it’s breaktime. Very handsome, very
cheerful, very ‘clear’ in spite of the sober dark hair. He is almost glowing. He is wearing
black pants, a golden vest with fringes and a light-blue silk shirt. Joe explains that it is the
costume of his character, a pop singer who participates in automobile races:
- ‘The film has everything that women like, even is it doesn’t always please the critics!
But I always say that it isn’t they who pay for the tickets!’
Elvis is escorted by his own ‘uncle Jo’, Colonel Parker, who doesn’t leave him for a
moment. It is the Colonel who decides on his contracts, his meetings, how he spends his
free time.
Elvis doesn’t know Avignon. But Paris, yes. Ah! Paris…! I would love to speak with
him, but there are two barriers, his language and my timidity. All the same, I dare to say to
him:
- ‘I’m going to learn English very quickly, so that I can speak with you!’
Joe, charmed, translates. Evidently adding several things, as his sentence is four times
longer than mine. What did he say?
-‘That he wants to do the remake of ‘A Star is Born’ with you. So why not with Presley
as well. And Presley replied that you have a very pretty face…’
The director Norman Taurog joins us. (Johnny whispers to me that he has made films
with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin). He takes me by the chin:
-‘Nice face… El, ready?’
It’s over. With a wide smile, El hugs me, says ‘good luck’, I respond with: ‘Goude
loque!’… and the photographer immortalises the moment.

Johnny receives Colonel Parker. He gets on well with this tall, dry, ramrod-straight
man, who doesn’t let Elvis be approached by anyone. He highlights the privilege accorded,
the exception made for me in allowing me to be photographed with Elvis. We dine together
– alas, without Elvis! – and we speak of the million dollars that Elvis receives per film. And
he makes two per year… speaking of money bores me, because if I know very well what I
can buy with 4 dollars won at a slot machine (by the way, I have 12 dollars now – they had
babies!), I have no idea what to do with one million dollars. What I do know is that I want
to earn a lot of money to help those who have none, starting with my family… it’s already
too late for Grandpapa… for the poor Charlot of my childhood… too late, too late. This is
what makes me sad, sometimes. When I have time to think about it. Because Joe throws us
into a hurricane. He invites us everywhere, beginning with the home his wife, Mme
Pasternak, a pretty brunette, has made for them. Their two sons, even the smallest, speak a
little French. The eldest wants to go to Paris… their secretary, who is also a professional
tennis player, is of French origin; his name is Pierre Grelot. With his help I finally begin to
understand what is happening around me. When I hear ‘Doris!’ or ‘Shirley’, he completes
the sentence with ‘Day’ or ‘MacLaine’, although this doesn’t tell me much. I can’t even say
who it is I am meeting with, because I have never seen them on the screen, and because
everything happens so fast. At the first meeting, they say ‘hello, Mireille!’ in the friendliest
manner possible. One gets the impression that one has always known them, and then hop!
they’ve disappeared. Who knows whether I’ll see them again?
Joe doesn’t fail to insist that he adores the French. He has filmed Dalio, Louis Jourdan,
Danièle Darrieux, Lila Kedrova… why not Mireille Ma-tiou?
That night, Johnny tells me:
-‘Do you understand how lucky you are, Mireille? You have to make sure you don’t
miss your chance. There are flocks of debutantes and pretty girls here. You must learn
English very soon.’
-‘Yes, Johnny.’
At another reception, one of Joe’s friends accosts us:
-‘I have a marvellous offer for you. A series of fifty episodes on TV. The story of a
little orphan in Louisiana. She loses her parents in a car accident in 1938. She falls in love
with a boy who is called up to serve in the army, they get engaged on the eve of the
Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. He dies in the bombing and…’
I am already crying. But won’t I get to sing? No. What interests him is my face.
On returning to the bungalow with Johnny and Jan, I say:
-‘But what I really love is singing!’
-‘Don’t worry, Mimi. We won’t hurry. We have plenty to choose from. But now we
must pack.’
-‘We’re going back?’
-‘No, we’re leaving for Honolulu! You’re appearing on Merv Griffin’s show there, and
you’re going to get a surprise…’
Honolulu is a surprise in itself. I had thought that it was an arm’s length away. But not
only do we have to take the plane, we also fly for several hours. I have time to play a game
of Patience with Jan. However, on arriving I find that it’s still America – limousines, hotels
bordered by waving palm fronds, huge beaches, a TV station; but instead of Eddie Sullivan
there is Merv Griffin, built on a more massive scale and wearing tennis shoes. I learn that
with him tennis is hereditary. His father and his uncles were both champions of the racquet.
He doesn’t speak to me about my face – this ‘nice face’ which I hear all the time – but of
my voice. Perhaps because he started out as a singer with an orchestra? Merv knows
everything: he plays the piano, sings, of course, acts in comedies, invents games. (He’s a
veritable treasure-trove!) He remarks that I am a natural fighter, a player, because while
awaiting my turn on the show, all alone, with my puzzle bought at the airport, I tried to roll
the ‘eyes’ (little black balls) into the sockets of the animals of a small zoo. I could have
gone on for hours because of my obstinacy.
The orchestra attacks ‘Mon credo’ with gusto. Is it because there is a holiday
atmosphere here? I feel as though I have grown wings…
-‘What that good, uncle Jo?’
-‘Very good. I was wondering if I was right in including a little-known song in your
repertoire, instead of a hit like ‘La Vie en rose’…’
-‘I would be glad for Paul Mauriat if his song was successful.’
-‘Ah! You see, you’re grown used to ‘Mon credo’!’
He mentioned a surprise. What is it? Is it a typically Hawaiian dinner with a ukulele for
accompaniment? No. The surprise arrives the next day.
It is a very big surprise. It takes human form. Four cameramen of Raymond Marcillac’s
team, filming ‘Les Coulisses de l’exploit!’. It’s going to be made on Hawaii. Uncle Jo has
arranged everything, and so here we are at Sea Park Life. It is a superb oceanographic
museum. The principal attraction is an immense pool with trained dolphins.
I follow the installation of the cameras with interest. The dolphins jump into the air like
the goats back at home! A festive canoe sailed by a pretty Hawaiian girl decked with
flowers approaches us.
-‘Here you are, Mireille, a canoe for you!’
-‘Me?’
-‘Of course you!’
-‘But you know very well that I can’t swim!’
-‘We’re not asking you to swim. You’re just going to have a peaceful sail, surrounded
by the dolphins.’
-‘But they’re not at all peaceful! Look how they jump! The canoe will capsize!’
The technicians interrupt. But no, it won’t capsize at all. It has a flat bottom. And the
water isn’t deep here at all.
-‘Oh dear! Even if my feet touch the bottom the water will still cover me completely!’
Uncle Jo is impatient. I’m wasting the time of a whole team brought here specially from
Paris!
-‘But you know well that I’m afraid of water!’
Jan comes to the rescue. There are twenty people who are watching, ready to jump in
the water if, by some accident or design, I end up in the water! Uncle Jo is getting angry.
He uses a frightful threat: if I don’t obey, I’m returning not to Paris, but to Avignon.
Assisted by Jan, I risk getting into the canoe, letting out a cry at each slosh of the water.
I fall into my seat, terrified.
-‘And smile!’
-‘I’m scared!’
-‘But listen, there-is-no-dan-ger!’ Jan cries to me.
-‘Be quiet, you fool! I’m not going to sing any more of your songs!’
That came out involuntarily. Well, too bad!
-‘You’re too tense, Mireille! You’re not in any danger!’ Yells uncle Jo, while the boat
floats away, and I see a dolphin approaching.
-‘I beg of you, uncle Jo, I beg of you! I’ll even sing rock if you want me to!’

Paris. An apartment prettily arranged by Auntie. She has put flowers everywhere, a
beautiful golden goose-feather eiderdown lies on my bed… my two little sisters, Matite and
Christiane, have come to meet me. They now have the same hairstyle as I. We are almost
the same height, which is very practical. We can share blouses, jumpers, T-shirts. The bags
are unpacked. Here is everything that I have brought from New York, Las Vegas, Los
Angeles, Honolulu…
-‘Oh dear! But we can set up a shop with all that you have brought!’ Says Matite.
-‘I’m going to lend you two suitcases to carry all this. I now have several of them!’
I have thought of everyone. I hope that I haven’t forgotten anybody. A cowboy hat for
Papa, I think it’ll suit him, and a scarf for the drug-store owner, because we kept on
bothering her with our phone calls.
-‘It’s not a bother for her at all. It attracts customers! But… are you sure you didn’t
spend too much?’
-‘I didn’t keep count. I did need to change clothes!’
-‘But you’re going to come down to Avignon soon?’
It hurts me, but it is necessary to tell them it’s not possible at the moment, that I’m
returning to America in four weeks. They must explain all this to Mama. Uncle Jo is betting
a lot on the ‘American card’, to use his expression. Therefore I must travel often. And
because I know nothing, at the same time I must work on my English, my diction, my
voice…
-‘But you don’t need to work on your voice!’
It’s perfectly normal that they don’t understand. Only three months ago I didn’t
understand either. I tell them what I have learnt: the vocal cords are a muscle. It must be
trained, strengthened, as a runner does with his legs, a pianist with his fingers. At the
moment I only sing two songs, so it’s all right. But during the summer tour I must perform
at least ten each night. ‘You must deal with it’, uncle Jo keeps on saying. He has grand
projects, great hopes… I charge them to explain to Papa, as it is better told in person than
via the telephone… (in fact, I now have my own telephone! Four, even, one in the kitchen,
one in Auntie’s bedroom, one in mine and one in the dining room!). Proof that uncle Jo
believes in me absolutely is that he’s going to abandon his other artists so that he only has
to concern himself about me.
-‘He’s even leaving Johnny Halliday?’ Asks Matite.
-‘Yes. Even Johnny. Uncle Jo says that Johnny doesn’t need him anymore. Unlike
me…’
Every day Nadine seeks me out to take photos, go to a radio station, meet reporters…
that is how I meet Yves Salgues of ‘Jours de France’. I immediately feel great warmth
toward him. He is a young man, very thin, with an accent which, although it isn’t my own,
is still full of sunlight (he comes from Lot). In a very soft voice, he asks me questions about
America and I speak to him of Disneyland, where I had a real holiday… where I wanted to
try everything, trembling with fear in the haunted house, laughing with the pirates, gasping
with amazement in the submarine ‘Nautilus’, being enchanted by Mickey and Pluto, whom
I met in flesh and blood together, an arm’s length away from the castle of Sleeping
Beauty…
-‘But listen, Mireille, you also met M. Pasternak in Hollywood!’
Nadine turns me back on track, and as Yves Salgues also knows M. Pasternak, the
conversation flows.
My head fills the entire cover page, under the title ‘Mireille Mathieu… fame in three
months’. I turn the pages to look at the photographs inside: me in Disneyland, in Avignon
among my fans… uncle Jo takes the magazine away from me, we must go to rehearsal.
-‘Is the article good?’
-‘Very good,’ he responds. ‘Everything is here, your impressions, your plans. But we
must hurry.’
Uncle Jo must have a pendulum clock in his head.
Barely out, my disc sells like hot cakes. It is no less popular than the Beatles’! When I
say ‘my disc’, I really ought to say ‘the song ‘Mon credo’’. It is asked for always and
everywhere.
-‘I did well to ‘torture’ you to tears!’ Says Johnny. ‘We’re moving on!’
Jacques Plante, author of the songs in the operetta ‘Monsieur Carnaval’, for which
Aznavour wrote the music, brings us a slow waltz, of which he is this time both the writer
and the composer. It’s called ‘Le Funambule’. I adore it! It is well balanced. It is full of
tenderness:

Tout là-haut dans la nuit


Marche un funambule
En habit de clair de lune
Et de diamants.
Il s’avance en jonglant
Par-dessus la foule
Les gens retiennent leur souffle
Le cœur battant.
Il plane sur la fête.
Par-dessus les têtes...

There is a spoken part. Only five verses, but they must be said correctly, so as ‘not to
throw the song to the wind’, as Johnny says. Therefore we go to see Robert Manuel,
member of the Comédie-Française and a professor at the Conservatory. I know that the
Comédie-Française is as important for drama as the Opera is for singing. Johnny tells me
that M. Manuel has played beside Brel in ‘L’Homme de la Mancha’. And finally, he is a
close friend of Maurice Chevalier. In fact it was Maurice who mentioned his name to us,
saying that he learnt a lot from him… M. Manuel is a rotund, cheerful man with nice eyes
who makes me laugh even when he raises his voice.
-‘She has good loaves!’ He declares. And, on seeing my eyes, wide with amazement:
‘Isn’t that what they say where you come from?’
-‘We say that someone has a nice bust.’
He acquiesces.
-‘A nice bust. And good loaves. I’m all ears, mademoiselle.’
I try my five verses:

Celui que j’aime est un poète.


Lui non plus n’a pas les pieds sur terre.
Lui aussi fait de la corde raide
Au-dessus du vide
Au-dessus du vide de mon cœur.

- ‘Oh, la la! The accent! You don’t come from the Pontoise, that’s for sure! Try again…
what are you saying? It sounds as though you a have a mouth full of stew! Begin again.’
-‘She is dyslexic,’ Johnny explains.
-‘I confuse ‘b’s and ‘p’s…’
-‘I can hear that.’ (He is trying to contain his laughter). ‘You must talk for half an hour
each day with a pencil held between your teeth… to learn to ar-ti-cu-late. You will repeat:
‘Petit Pot de Beurre, quand te Dépetit Pot de Beurreriseras-tu? Je me Dépetit Pot de
Beurreriserai quand tous les Petits Pots de Beurre se Dépetit Pot de Beurreriseront’.’
I burst into laughter, my great ha! ha! ha! which so annoys Johnny.
-‘She has a powerful breath!’ He says. ‘She could have made a good soubrette! In the
meantime, don’t think about the words, but about what they need to convey. Celui que
j’aime est un poète… see him, picture your poet in your mind. Without ceasing to see him,
inverse the words. Say: ‘Mon poète est celui que j’aime…’ or ‘j’aime celui qui est un
poète…’. The sense. Not the words. Thus you will sound simple and true.’
That was my first lesson – and it wouldn’t be my last – with M. Manuel.
It was at the hairdresser’s that Jours de France again made its way into my hands.
There, I had the leisure to read this headline:
‘She has conquered five million Americans with two cries straight from the heart:
‘L’Hymne à l’amour’ and ‘Mon credo’. In France, three months was enough for her to
release her first disc, which plunged into oblivion eight years of tuneless noise and static.’
And the article: ‘In a century of 220-volt electric guitars, she belongs to the epoch of grand
pianos. In an era when celebrities advertise their names for all they’re worth, she barely
suspects the existence of Johnny, Claude, Sylvie or Dick.
‘Yet nevertheless, in the four months since we have begun talking of her, Mireille
Mathieu has achieved in a quarter of a year what others – such as Petula Clark – have taken
ten years to accomplish… the international recognition which came to her thanks to
American television before she left the country… is a unique occurrence in the annals of
performing art: she is the only singer whose debut has ended with a consecration…
although she only knew three songs by heart. In 1966 this is more than enough to birth a
legend. And Mireille Mathieu is surrounded by multiple myths and legends, some of which
are favourable and some hostile.’
Hostile: the word hits me like a hammer.
‘What those in her profession call ‘the miracle of Mireille’, a handful of maligners twist
into ‘the imposturing of Mathieu’, and explain the new turn her life has taken by a clever
publicity campaign.’
Yves Salgues then comes to my defence, speaking of the miraculous voice of a young
girl from Provençe who came from her people and appeared before the world with the sure
and mysterious instinct of song… he gives yet another version of my life, of my voyage to
America, of my plans for 1967… but I don’t pay it any more attention.
On returning home, I leaf through my big dictionary. I want to be sure of the terms…
‘Maligner: person who seeks to explain and detract from someone's success.’
‘Imposturing: the trickery of a person who wants to appear other than what he is.’
So that is how things stand. Auntie notices at once that I’m not my usual self. But I say
nothing. Poor Auntie! She’s barely arrived in Paris and I’m already weighing her down
with worries, drawing her into being complicit in my shame. No one in our family has ever
been an impostor… but once I’m in my room, I can’t control myself and call uncle Jo.
-‘Did I interrupt you?’
-‘No. I’m with Nicole and Vincence. They send you their love… Vincence wants to
know when we’ll amuse her again by doing dictation, she likes it. I told her that you have
other things to do right now. What’s happened, my dear Mimi?’
And the barrier breaks. ‘The imposturings of Mathieu’! That is why he took the
magazine from me. But I read it at the hairdresser’s! Why do I have enemies? What are my
parents going to say? He calms me. He’s going to see me tomorrow morning and explain
everything. And meanwhile, he asks me to pass the phone to Auntie, who speaks to him
from the kitchen. A moment later, she joins me, with her habitual sweet smile. The
magazine? Of course she’s read it. It’s of no importance! She dries my tears, cajoles me,
prepares me an infusion.
That night I sleep next to her. She has long since asked for two beds to be placed in her
room, saying that this way she’ll always be able to accommodate any of the Mathieu sisters
when they come to visit me. But she must have realised that of all the Mathieu girls, the one
needing this refuge most often, the one who will have these long talks with her before
falling asleep in the midst of a sentence, will be me.
The next morning, uncle Jo comes in time for breakfast. Auntie prepares soft-boiled
eggs and toast.
-‘Eat first,’ she says. ‘You can have your serious talk later.’
But seriously speaking, I am very upset, and I say so. ‘Imposturing’ is not to be
tolerated.
-‘But perhaps it’s not you they are attacking, Mimi. Perhaps it’s me…’
-‘Why should it be you?’
-‘But that’s they way it is, Mimi, and not only in show-biz. It’s the same everywhere.
As soon as something is going right for someone, you will find people who would prefer
that it didn’t! It’s like that the world over.’
-‘Not here. Not at home.’
Uncle Jo sighs. Auntie refills his cup of coffee.
-‘You can always return if you want, Mimi…’
I know well – he knows well – that I would never go back. I don’t have the right to do
so. Everyone believes in me now, the whole family. I prayed, and my prayers were heard. I
am upon a set path. As Auntie told me last night: ‘Don’t take any notice of the stumbling
blocks! Go your own way and look only before you!’
Uncle Jo continues: if he had no confidence in me, would he have abandoned all his
other affairs? His entire network is now mobilized just for me, six people are working for
the best opportunities to become available to me… I shouldn’t think of anything but
singing, and singing the best I can. Everything else has been looked after.
-‘And I thought that I was now finished with the torments of artistes! Happily you
haven’t yet woken me up at four in the morning! I’ve had that experience before! It’s
always either deep depression or loud partying! I said to myself: here is a sweet, gentle
young girl who will listen to me and for whom I can construct a good career. And it turns
out that I found myself a horse butterfly!’
-‘What on earth is a horse butterfly?’
-‘Ah! You’re smiling! It’s a funny sort of animal. It’s you: strong as a horse and fragile
as a butterfly. The moment something’s not quite right you begin to lose your colours…’
Some days later, we go to have lunch in Marnes with Maurice Chevalier. Johnny tells
him of my soul-searching. And Maurice tells me of his own during his debuts in Parisiana:
-‘I frequented a café next door, and one day when I arrived in a dashing costume – I
was twenty-one and it had been seven years since I started working and earning enough to
support myself – an ageing comedian said to me sharply: ‘Well, so the rising star of the
century deigns to mingle with the little fry?’ I responded that he was surely drunk. This
enraged him. He insulted me: ‘Star of my behind, we’ll settle this outside!’ He was set on
fighting it out, whereas I had no desire to: firstly because I was a pacifist, and secondly
because I was somewhat scared. The matron Pagès, who ran the café, said to me: ‘You’re
in the right, Maurice! Or else you’d have to fight all the ham actors here. They’re all
jealous of you!’ I went white as a sheet and wasn’t myself for a long time. I couldn’t sleep.
The next day I signed up for lessons in English boxing. It was very popular in those days.
And a month later, I continued my conversation with that comedian where we left off. It
was he who ran away!’
-‘But, Maurice, I can’t take boxing lessons!’
We laugh, of course. And he adds:
-‘What would really be disquieting, you see, is if the public liked you less. And surely
then the little world of show-biz would like you more!’
In Avignon there are also rumours:
-‘She must be earning stacks of money, your daughter!’
Johnny therefore sends a letter to Papa:

‘29 March 1966


‘Dear Sir,
‘After three months of effective work, it seems to me useful to assess our progress and
to inform you of the results before together we come to a conclusion about the future
position.
‘We have worked tirelessly, and the outcomes, although modest, remain encouraging.
Moreover, I have nothing but praise for Mireille’s goodwill; but the fact is that she has
infinitely more to learn than I supposed during our first contacts. To tell the truth, we will
have to start from scratch and channel her understandable though misplaced enthusiasm to
oblige her to acquire the basic skills needed for a lasting success. Unfortunately, Mireille is
not well prepared for the work that awaits her, and this means, to the detriment of chances
for immediate earnings, a big effort on her part, as on mine.
‘For your information, I confirm that I have engaged an English tutor, a singing tutor,
an orchestral conductor, a press, radio and television secretary, and that the future will see a
need for teachers of deportment, dance and diction. All these require considerable
investments, the amplitude of which will become clear to you when you know that the
journey to the United States has cost more than a hundred and twenty thousand franks.
‘Taking into account our current and everyday expenses in Paris, we are still far from a
positive balance sheet, as, not including the expected revenues from her newly-released
disc, Mireille has thus far only earned the following:

‘4 days on tour with Hugues Aufray . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 800 franks


‘Olympia, 24 days at 200 franks per day . . . . . . . . . . 4800 franks
‘Galas in Belgium from 25 February to 2 March,
300 franks per day . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1800 franks

‘Total . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7400 franks

‘Nevertheless you should not be discouraged by the magnitude of our task; I spoke to
you of the need for two years of hard work before it becomes possible to collect the fruit of
our efforts, and this delay still seems necessary to me. I have complete confidence in
Mireille’s talent and willpower, and I know that I can be assured of your understanding and
support.
‘With great respect, yours
‘J. Stark.’

Still, the brutal discovery of my ‘maligners’ broke something in me… part of my


childhood, perhaps? But I have no time to concentrate on ‘soul-searching’. Life is busy, full
to the brim. From ten till two o’clock I rehearse my songs with dear Henri Byrs. Then a
super-light lunch and singing lessons with Jean Lumière. This is the best time of the day.
He lives near the hall Pleyel, in a small apartment stuffed with souvenirs. I find him
very good-looking, although he tells me that he is over seventy years old! He has a very
fine face and sweet eyes…
-‘You have a wonderful surname, monsieur Lumière!’
-‘I’m not at all related to the inventor of cinematography. My true name is Anezin…’
He has an accent! He’s from Aix-en-Provence! A countryman! His father, like mine,
adored singing opera – in between two bottles (he was a wine seller!)
-‘You know, Mama adores you. She knows ‘Un amour comme le nôtre’ and ‘La Petite
Eglise’ off by heart. She sings it often:

Je sais une église au fond d’un hameau


Dont le fin clocher se mire dans l’eau…’

- ‘You have a true voice and a beautiful timbre,’ he says to me. ‘But what I want to work
on with you is your breathing. If you had a strong breath, Mireille, you could do anything
you wished with your voice. In my time, we had no microphones. The voice had to carry to
the back of the room on its own power. You see, I don’t have a loud voice… unlike you. If
I had to count solely on its volume, it would only reach the tenth row.’
-‘So what did you do?’
-‘I was very lucky. I was making my debut in a cinema in Marseilles when a grand
dame of song discovered me: Esther Lekain. She was a singer-declaimer, as they used to
say then. She made her songs carry. She lived them like an actress. She taught me to do this
too. And it was she who baptised me Lumière… when I went up to Paris I entered the
Conservatoire to learn diction, articulation, to speak well… I even successfully performed
in comedies and tragedies!’
-‘But then why didn’t you become a stage actor?’
-‘But I preferred romances. I knew how to express my feelings, but how to impart them
to the entire hall… that was a different story. That’s how I met another lady, an opera
singer, who taught me breathing: Ninon Vallin. I owe everything to these women. And
now, we must get to work. You have a strong voice, but that doesn’t mean that you have a
strong breath. They have nothing to do with each other. Lie down on the floor.’
-‘What?’
-‘On the floor, on your back. I’ll lie next to you and you put your hand on my
stomach...’
This was amazing. If Mama could see me! Yet I wasn’t worried, because Jan had such a
kind look… and because his pianist was seated at the piano. M. Lumière began to sing, and
I felt at once where his breath came from… this made me laugh. My ha! ha! which made
people turn around and stare…
-‘Laugh! Laugh, my little Mireille, it’ll do you good! But your laugh comes badly, it
comes from the back of your throat and you expel it through the nose! You choke on it! If
your breath came from your stomach, you could laugh for an hour without tiring! We’ll
begin again…’
The English class is much less fun. The teacher is younger than M. Lumière, although
quite respectable. I call him Waterloo, which becomes a bad omen. It means victory for him
and defeat for me. One hundred and twenty minutes of English per day, that is what Johnny
wished. To begin with, Waterloo thought that sixty would suffice, whereas I gave up at
fifteen. I had thought that to learn English meant that I would speak it at once, even if not at
all correctly… yet Waterloo begins explaining English grammar to me, even though I
barely know the French!
And a pile of events distracts me. For example, I am invited to the headquarters of the
Federation of Football to draw lots for the teams that will participate in the Cup semi-finals.
That I found very interesting! My arrival caused a great disruption in the Rue de Londres.
The switchboard stopped working because all the young female operators were in the
process of demanding my autograph… the president, Chiarisoli, is very impressive behind
his glasses, but I don’t fail to impress him in turn by saying that I know Angers is fourth in
the championship. I adore football. It makes me yell. It releases stress. If I had a choice
between a concert programme or a good match, I wouldn’t hesitate: I’d choose the ball!
Six days later is another event: we hurry to Brest, and there, in the harbour, stands the
cruiser ‘Richelieu’.
It almost looks as though it’s not waiting for anyone but me! And it’s true! All this has
been thought up by Jean Bardin for his programme ‘Les Quatre Cents Coups’. We are
therefore received in maritime surroundings. Among uniforms, medals and pompoms. But
everything is spoilt when they speak of leaving in a helicopter… I whisper to uncle Jo:
-‘Can’t we leave on foot?’
He signs to me that no.
-‘I’m going to be sick!’
He signs to me that no.
-‘I won’t be able to sing.’
He signs to me that yes.
When I think of my girlfriends in Avignon, who all dreamed of going to Toulon to see
the marines… it seems as though there are two thousand of them here around me!
-‘Look, mademoiselle,’ the copilot says to me, ‘the view…!’
But I am in the midst of praying to the Virgin, and one can’t look about at views while
one prays. Johnny comments on the harbour – it’s splendid, on the crowd below – it’s
enormous, on the cruiser – it’s gigantic, and finally he says, upon descending:
-‘Here we are, it’s all over. Take a deep breath, Mimi!’
The pilot asks my impressions, and all I can find to say is: ‘Too bad the helicopter
doesn’t have wings…’. Once my foot is on hard earth again – or so to speak, as in fact we
are still on the deck – I imagine that I am in one of the musical comedies of which M.
Pasternak told me in Hollywood: the two thousand marines are all here, artistically
arranged around four large cannons. The little Jean Bardin, with whom I feel very
comfortable because he is nearly the same height as I, puts me among them, and the choir
begins:

C’est nous les gars de la marine


Du plus petit jusqu’au plus grand
Du moussaillon au commandant!

Afterwards… it’s pure pleasure. It doesn’t matter whether I sing ‘L’Hymne à l’amour’
or ‘Mon credo’, everything brings joy. To sing in fresh air, as though to fill all of Brest…
and afterwards, the berets in the air, the never-ending autographs, the tour of the ship from
the hold to the deck, which doesn’t stop astounding you with ladders, bridges and red
pompoms! Yes, it was well worth the mind-numbing fear during those three minutes in the
helicopter.
Maurice Chevalier calls me the next day. He has seen me on ‘Quatre Cents Coups’.
He’s making his own programme… and he asks me if I would like to be his partner…
Albert Raisner wants me to represent France at the French-German Festival, along with
Jacqueline François, Jacqueline Boyer and Henri Salvador… and Johnny and I depart for
New York and Los Angeles in a great hurry.
There I meet the third giant of American television: after Eddie Sullivan and Merv
Griffin, Johnny Carson invites me to appear on his popular ‘Tonight Show’. I have made
little progress in English since my first journey three months ago. I can still only use six
words: ‘Hello! Yes! No! I love you!’ But I only need to give everyone a big smile and it all
goes well. Uncle Jo grumbles a bit. I did honestly try to learn some phrases, all made up by
Waterloo, but I found it so difficult to pronounce them that I gave up on the way here.
Nevertheless…
-‘You have a good memory. You have a good ear.’
-‘Yes. But I stumble when I have to learn English, not when I have to learn songs…’
I indeed manage to learn songs without any difficulty. They flow about in my head, like
the blood in my veins. In performing my ‘Funambule’, it is as if I also am joyously
balancing against the sky:

Il danse sur le monde


Je ne suis qu’une ombre
Il n’est qu’un éclat!

Pierre Delanoë, Bécaud’s songwriter, wrote for me:

Qu’elle est belle, qu’elle est belle


Dans sa robe de mariée.
J’aurais tant voulu porter
La même…

I find it so easy to sing this with feeling, from the heart, that a journalist who
understands French asks me: ‘When are you going to marry?’
Truly, reporters are the same all over the world. Mama, whom I call at the drugstore, is
beside herself with worry:
- ‘Do you know what they shoved under my nose at the baker’s? A newspaper which
describes in detail how ‘the new Piaf is experiencing her first pangs of love’…’
- ‘What pangs of love?’
- ‘I’m asking you. Are you having pangs of love?’
- ‘But Mama, I’d have told you!’
- ‘I’m not so sure of that… you can be secretive sometimes.’
- ‘What do they say?’
- ‘’That, so as not to get in the way of your ascension to glory…’ – I’m reading it out,
by the way – ‘…he whom you have decided to marry has resolved, with pain in his soul, to
retire from your life…’’
I imagine how the drugstore customers shift from foot to foot before the packets of
pasta, awaiting the rest of the story.
- ‘So whom have you decided to marry?’
- ‘No one, Mama!’
- ‘They say that it’s someone from Avignon!’
- ‘Well then, you know him!’
- ‘That’s exactly what worries me. I don’t know anyone like that here! Especially now
that you’re constantly going to America…! You father is also shaken.’
- ‘Listen, Mama, tell Papa that I haven’t even had time to learn to speak without an
accent yet! I’m rushed off my feet here…’
- ‘And why lose your accent? In any case, it disappears slower than one’s virtue! And
that is precisely why I don’t want you to be rushed off your feet!’
- ‘Mama, if I swear to you by Saint Rita that everything is well, will you believe me?’
- ‘Of course.’
- ‘Well then, I swear.’
- ‘All right. What’s the weather like in New York?’
- ‘It’s windy.’
- ‘Don’t tell me that they have the mistral?’
- ‘Of a sort. It’s very draughty between the skyscrapers. I’m a bit scared of taking the
plane to Los Angeles tomorrow. I would like the wind to fall, rather than the plane, you
see!’ (I cross myself and Mama does the same on the other end of the line.)
- ‘Don’t they have trains?’
- ‘But we don’t have time to take them. Goodbye… I’ll call you from Hollywood. Kiss
everyone around you from me…’
In Beverly Hills, Joe Pasternak is brimming with ideas. He has a series planned for me,
‘Beauty Contest’… Pierre Grelot explains: it’s a story at once touching and funny: ‘A large
family… following you life closely, Mimi. A beauty contest instead of a song contest…’
- ‘But I’ll sing anyway?’
- ‘Naturally!’
One thing worries me. A beauty contest… at them girls generally appear in swimming
costumes… now, I hate putting on bathing suits. Even at the pool in Avignon, with
Françoise, I was shy, and she teased me a little because I didn’t like to show myself. I
thought I had too big a chest for that…
- ‘But in Hollywood they can fix everything!’ Pierre says laughingly. ‘We see girls
arrive and go with superb hair and gleaming teeth, such as they have never had! Whereas
your hair and teeth are impeccable. And a bust… that can be taken care of, it is easiest to
deal with, in fact! The best surgeons work in Hollywood…’
It is as though he has put a serpent on my plate. I lose my appetite. Happily, a huge
distraction arrives with Danny Kaye. Once again, a gentleman whom I do not know. But
apparently he has seen Johnny Carson’s program, and he manages 'The Eddie Sullivan
Show’. He says to me, drolly mixing up French and English and gesturing in such a manner
that I can’t help but laugh:
- ‘Miss Ma-tiou, je vous veux dans mon show, le mien, compris? C’est O.K.?’
I notice that he has very fine, expressive hands. Pierre tells me that this helps him a lot
in his hilarious comedy, in which he plays an orchestral conductor. In real life he is also a
musician and a fan of the greatest, notably Karajan (this tells me nothing, but I don’t bat an
eyelid and remember the name), he has watched them so often that he can imitate them
perfectly, which puts him in great demand in all countries. He often accepts with the
condition that the profits go to poor children. I ask him if he had also been poor? Not rich,
but not poor either, he replies, as he was very gifted… at five years of age he had already
performed in a variety show, as a watermelon pip!
- ‘A pip?’
I laugh as he continues speaking to Joe with his hands, while Johnny starts a
conversation with ‘his Stark’, M. Schwimmer. Pierre goes on with his explanation:
everything began a dozen years ago; on his way to make a film in Asia, Danny found
himself on a plane with someone from UNICEF, a branch of the United Nations set up for
the aid of children, and asked if he could accompany him on an inspection. The war was
still on… they visited the front line. He was deeply upset by all that he saw, especially the
poor starving toddlers who had lost everything, including their families… he told us that
‘nothing afterwards could be the way it used to be and that the rest of his life wouldn’t be
enough to help these twenty-five million children…’ I ask him if it’s possible to earn so
much money in Hollywood so as to be able to help twenty-five million children? Pierre
smiles. Even all the movies Danny has made aren’t enough. But he is like a stubborn sailor:
he holds galas, which bring in a lot of money, he inspires others to do as he does, he is
making a film from which all the profits will go to UNICEF, he gives himself to his cause
body and soul, he works tirelessly.
I look at this redheaded giant with his eyes like billiard balls who makes the guests split
their sides laughing.
- ‘But in what language is he speaking?’
- ‘He’s imagining a dialogue between an Arab and a Japanese, but in fact he doesn’t
speak either language! He is very good at imitating accents… it’s one of his biggest tricks.
Ask him if he speaks French.’
I ask him daringly:
- ‘Vous parlez le français, monsieur Kaye?’
- ‘Malheureusement,‘ he responds with a Parisian accent, ‘je ne le parle pas du tout!’
And following this, he says a string of phrases which make no sense, in which I
recognise some words, such as ‘formidable’, ‘oh! la la’, ‘it’s unbelievable!’, ‘are you
well?’, finishing with ‘my’ accent, which he has acquired immediately:
- ‘I speak the French of the South, mademoiselle!’
It’s pure genius.
When we return to the Beverly Hills Hotel, Johnny tells me that it’s all arranged, I’m
going to star in a show, televised in December, and tomorrow Mr. Schwimmer is going to
organise a showing of ‘Joyeux Phénomène’, which is already twenty years old and which
made his career…
- ‘If I stayed in Hollywood… I would go to the cinema every day! I’m sure that it
would help me to learn English faster than Waterloo!’
- ‘That could happen, you know. Joe has firmly decided to film you.’
- ‘But I don’t want to wear a bathing suit!’
- ‘You’ll do what they say… but we’re still got far to go, so don’t worry!’
It’s a lucky Friday the thirteenth. The living room is suddenly flooded with roses, sent
by a multimillionaire called Stanley Marcus, according to Johnny.
- ‘Imagine that the rich of the United States communicate along a chain. He wants you
to sing in Dallas. It’s his home city. He suggests five recitals at the Opera…’
- ‘At the Opera! Papa will burst with pride!’
- ‘Don’t get carried away. You only have ten songs, and in addition… they are not all
good.’
I am disappointed. Johnny tells me that not everything is lost. Another formula will be
found… Sunday brings a shower of even more roses than the first. To thank me and to ask
me to go to a great French occasion in October: all Marcus’ stores will be catching up to
Paris with French products. So I will sing in department stores? It is far from the Opera!
Johnny again reassures me. That is not what is being offered. An ultra-chic gala will be
held in the middle of the two weeks’ sale, and my name will be at the top of the bills.
Wednesday is a notable day: Joe, obstinate, makes me do a screen test at the M.G.M.
studios. A taste of the life of a star: early rise, the studio of the make-up artist. The cheeks
must be made more hollow, the eyebrow lifted, the shape of the chin altered. Dear Lord… I
have the impression that everything is to be changed utterly! He speaks a little French, he is
very gentle, he says that it’s a pleasure, that I am very pretty, but… that a wider eye, a
higher cheekbone will make me look even better, etc. I would like very much to see what
he is doing, but I’m not allowed to move.
After that comes the hairstyle. The chief stylist decides to keep the one I have. All the
better. I am taken to the filming area. I find that it doesn’t differ all that much from the ones
used by television stations. Only that it’s larger and that there are many people around the
camera. It’s turned on. Johnny translates for me:
- ‘Smile. You see someone… you say hello. You are happy to see this someone… now
the opposite. They bore you to tears… another scene. You see Danny Kaye! He makes you
laugh… stop.’
- ‘It’s not going well?’
- ‘It’s very good. But they want to change your hairstyle.’
Five times the stylist gives my hair a different shape. It doesn’t bore me at all. I even
find it amusing. Joe embraces me effusively.
- ‘Wonderful!’ He says.
And I understand perfectly what it means. He adds ‘my little star!’ and I understand that
too. It’s happened! I can speak English!
- ‘In my dreams!’ Says Johnny. ‘But what’s certain is that you are devilishly
photogenic.’

My four musketeers
When we return to Paris, there is ‘the Mathieu Affair’. I am not conscious of it because
it has been decided that I am to read no more magazines.
- ‘Except those with good reviews…’ I said.
- ‘Neither the good nor the bad,’ decrees uncle Jo. ‘The good are very bad indeed: you
will think yourself successful. Well, in our profession – and remember this when I am no
longer here – one is neither big nor successful, never. You always have something to
improve on.’
Therefore I knew nothing. But, again at the hairdresser’s… a lady says to me:
- ‘Oh! Mireille Mathieu! He wasn’t very nice to you, Léo Ferré, in ‘La Nouveau
Candide’!’
Nadine looks at her furiously, but the damage is done. Léo Ferré… the one who sings
‘Paris-Canaille’, which I adore… why?
The lady continues:
- ‘Oh! Notice that it’s Barclay whom he attacks first of all!’
Eddie, such a kind man… but why? I don’t know anything else about it at the moment,
but… by which chance has this magazine come near me? Perhaps a musician, a stage
manager, left it lying about during break? However it happened, it is here. Do I take it… or
do I leave it… the temptation is too great… I quietly rip out the page, to read in secret that
evening in my room:
‘I heard Mireille Mathieu, this young girl who is growing on the grave of Piaf, sing.’ I
don’t find that mean. Flowers grow on graves too.
‘This girl is a commercial idea, developed to appear on television. Barclay said to me
the other day: ‘I am unable to leave Mireille Mathieu. Someone else will take her if I do.’ I
still don’t find anything wrong with that. Of course discs must be sold, or else why make
them? Eddie did well to say that to him.
‘…I can’t pass judgement on the courage of those who have the same profession as I,
even if I have done it for twenty years and they for fifteen days.’ I understand, but wasn’t
there a time when he also had only been in his position for fifteen days?
‘… After they have been sold, even if by a forced wind, the artist can buy accessories
and cars with the money from this wind, and people won’t say anything to that.’ Why does
he say a forced wind? No one is ever forced to buy a disc. It is the consumer who decides
whether they like it or not. Yes, it’s true that I said I wanted to buy a car for Papa. Because
when I see him struggle to pull his cart loaded with stones… perhaps he, Léo, doesn’t know
how heavy it can be… in all seasons… and then, Papa will be able to take the children on
an outing on Sunday, further than just to the Doms cliff… and Mama will also be able to
use it, as she is starting to have trouble carrying Béatrice, who is beginning to put on the
weight appropriate for her two years…
‘… it’s the price of their enslavement. Slavery exists still, and it is worse than before.’
Oh! I don’t believe that. In my ‘Book of History’ I had seen how slaves were treated! It was
dreadful. ‘…Sometimes the slave would revolt, occasionally even shooting their master.
Today it’s all done by contract. It is forbidden to shoot Barclay. He is kind, he has a large
cigar, a beautiful moustache, and then he invites you to dinner all the time. He is adorable,
M. Barclay, but he is still a slavedealer.’ Dictionary: ‘one who sells Negroes.’ Oh yes! Like
the film which was shown on television the other day. But it is the lady at the hairdresser’s
who is mean: she didn’t understand that he was playing with words! ‘I also have good
relations with slavedealers. I even sign contracts, and once they are signed, I perform, I
fulfil them honestly. If I decide to do it, I do it. Only I can defend myself, I am a partly
emancipated slave.’
That’s all. And this article made so much noise? Perhaps I don’t understand very well.
But what I do feel well is that Léo Ferré can’t be very happy… it’s doubtlessly why he
writes such beautiful songs. I scrunch up the page into a little ball. And I throw it out the
window. It will greatly amuse the concierge’s kitten.
Some days later Nadine arrives with a wrapped-up ‘Télé 7 Jours’. She is shining:
- ‘Look at the title, Mimi: ‘The Friends of Mireille Mathieu come to her defence’. It’s
superb! Read! Maurice Chevalier… Louis Féraud, Eddie Barclay, Raoul Colombe!’
My four musketeers! It touches me deeply that, in the article, M. Colombe remembers
my efforts at the age of fifteen years to win first prize in the ‘Critérium’! It’s true, by God!
Mama thought me asleep when I, eyes tightly shut, was praying in my heart.
- ‘Auntie! Auntie! Come quick!’
Aunt Irène comes out of the kitchen, drying her hands (she is making a cake).
- ‘Listen, Auntie! ‘I, who know Mireille very well, can affirm that the detractors,
thankfully not numerous, who say that she is copying Piaf, and try to belittle her
extraordinary ascension by accrediting it to a publicity campaign, are grossly mistaken. She
is born to be an artist.’ That’s by M. Colombe! Louis Féraud describes me as a tremendous
fighter. ‘It is very difficult to make her see reason after she has decided on something. She
refuses to wear 85% of all fashionable clothes. She holds on to her modest black dress, and
I was hard put to persuade her to go onstage all in red…’
- ‘In other words,’ Auntie intercedes calmly, ‘he has perceived how stubborn you are.
He doesn’t say that you are dreadfully untidy?’
- ‘No! He says that my personality reveals itself when I am surrounded by people I
trust, that I sing during fittings and sing still as I leave! It’s true that I’ve made some
progress since the day, five months ago now, when I didn’t dare be seen by him in a slip!’
- ‘And Maurice?’
Auntie has a real passion for Chevalier.
- ‘He repeats what he said when we last met, that when he was making his debut, he
was accused of imitating Dranem, in the same way that Piaf was accused of copying Fréhel:
‘it takes some time to disentangle oneself from the admirations of one’s youth, and gain
one’s own proper personality. Mireille Mathieu has succeeded in doing this too quickly in
the opinion of the envious and the jealous, but she continues her work. Her golden voice is
puissant and also weightless, made for the light. The only challenge facing her now is not to
let her malwishers slow her down. And then you will see a dazzling career unfold.’
Auntie gets up, under the pretext that the dough will rise too high if not attended to, but
I know that it is to hide her emotion.
Finally, my ‘slave trader’, Eddie Barclay, speaks of ‘a vocal phenomenon’: ‘The disc
which has marked her debut includes a song, ‘Mon credo’, which would have suited Piaf
perfectly. Three hundred thousand copies of it have already been sold… what characterises
Mireille Mathieu best? It’s her will. She knows where she’s going and where she wants to
go.’
Yes, but… at the moment I only want to go, with all my heart, to Avignon. Ah! If only I
could go to the hospital and embrace Grandmama!
- ‘She’s not very strong,’ Mama has just told me on the phone. ‘She would really like to
see you!’
It’s not possible. There are ten songs to rehearse for my first big tour – sixty concerts! I
explained it to Mama, who sighed.
- ‘But in six days I’m returning to ‘Palmarès des chansons’ and you are all going to be
in the hall. Grandmama can’t come? Not at all?’
- ‘Not at all, Mimi. She’s not terribly sturdy. She seems almost like a dandelion seed.’
- ‘But all the others will be there? Promise?’
All the others, the entire family, for whom I want to make things easier. And after them,
for those I can… I think often of poor Charlot, whom we did our best to help while we
ourselves had little. What I could have done for him now… and it’s too late. In Paris, when
I see a tramp asleep near the mouth of a metro, I am shaken. I want to know how and why
he ended up that way. I am always afraid that he is dead.
No, I cannot see Grandmama. All I can do is pray for her. After the rehearsal, one of
uncle Jo’s assistants is charged with the task of taking me to Neuilly in his white
Volkswagen. I ask him to take me to Sacré-Cœur. He hesitates a little. He thinks that the
little provincial from Avignon wants to go sight-seeing. That is doubtful! But should I
explain it to him? I am also shy when it comes to my faith. With a smile, which I have
noticed no Parisian is able to withstand, I insist.
- ‘Well then, five minutes,’ he says.
But it’s late afternoon, and there are many traffic jams. We finally arrive at the top of
the hill. This is he first time I have entered Sacré-Cœur. I have wanted to visit it for a long
time because it was the first church I saw when I came to Paris… I am stunned by the
mosaics, the marble busts and he statues! ‘My’ Jeanne d’Arc, astride on a horse! ‘My’ Saint
Louis, also on a horse! Without doubt I have lost a lot of time, because the moment I begin
to pray my chauffeur comes to fetch me.
- ‘I haven’t finished,’ I say to him. ‘Kiss the feet of the Virgin with me.’
- ‘But I’ve never done it before!’
- ‘It’s never too late’.
The poor man, doubtlessly hoping to finish as quickly as possible, does this with all
possible aplomb. And then hears me say:
- ‘I have also vowed to make a tour of the frescoes on the walls.’
It’s a pilgrimage which I have undertaken for Grandmama’s recovery. Next to each
station, he shows me the time:
- ‘You know that M. Stark doesn’t like lateness!’
- ‘I know it. But God should always be the first to be served.’
- ‘The church is closing!’
And at the same moment, the voice of the beadle:
- ‘But no, no… pray, take your time, Mlle Mathieu! God is never in a hurry!’ And he
adds in a deep whisper: ‘I saw you on television!’
But the Lord is not with us upon our exit: it’s pouring buckets, one of those forceful and
stubborn spring rains. The traffic jams have doubled, and my chauffeur is more and more
irritated. He hits the bumper of the car preceding ours… on arriving in Neuilly, he becomes
somewhat redder:
- ‘M. Stark’s car!’
And truly: it stands at the edge of the sidewalk on which he deposits me. He drives
away quickly in his Volkswagen.
In the apartment, Johnny is even redder than the driver, in his case because of anger.
- ‘Look! See what state you’ve driven your aunt into! We thought you were dead. In an
accident! I’ve already called the police! You should have been here at six o’clock! It’s nine
in the evening! Do you want to tell me what you’ve been doing?
- ‘I was at the Sacré-Cœur.’
He doesn’t believe me. I can see well – and I can hear, too! – that he doesn’t believe
me. And then Auntie says in a soft voice:
- ‘It’s surely true, Johnny. Mireille has never deceived us. She must also have prayed
for you!’
He raises his eyes to the sky and remains speechless.
I feel sorry for those who have never known their grandparents. I have often heard talk
of the rift between generations. This hasn’t been the case with the Mathieus, but it is true
that parents often have too many worries which can make them weary, irritable, inattentive,
indifferent to their children. Grandparents often have more time for kindness, games,
cuddles, smiles, tender looks. Even at home, where we were the only treasures, Grandmama
was the one to give us all this. The thought that she might disappear from my life was
intolerable. I ask Johnny if I could make a short trip there and back by plane to embrace
her, and he says no. This I find very hard to bear. I detested him at that moment. It wasn’t
until much later that I understood. Grandmama was no longer the one I knew, gay, sharp-
witted, always taking us to the country to collect plants and herbs. The Grandmama who
knew legends from far-off places, which we children repeated to each other, mouth pressed
to ear, late in the evening… who also knew the sense hidden in dreams. How many times,
after she went to live with her second husband, did she suddenly appear in our house,
having scuffed her small feet – the same size as mine – on the hard road, to say:
- ‘I dreamed last night that…’
And it was always a fabulous tale, which left us little ones sitting with open mouths.
There was talk of fiery waterfalls, of huge rocks on the very tops of tall mountains… of
unicorns with their foreheads capped by horns, whorled like barley-sugar sweets…
- ‘Something will surely happen to you! What are you going to do today?’ Or else: ‘Be
careful! I saw the biggest waves on the sea today, so big the birds couldn’t fly over them!’
In the mornings, when she still lived with us, she would always interrogate me:
- ‘Well, what did you see last night?’
- ‘Grass.’
- ‘Very well, but what colour?’
- ‘Green.’
- ‘Very green? Well, that’s good.’
Or else:
- ‘The water you saw, was it troubled?’
- ‘A little bit. Not very. But it was funny. More like oil!’
- ‘Heavy, then? Ah! I don’t like that too much!’
It’s without doubt because of her that I cultivated my dreams, that I always saw in them
a small house on the edge of a blue sea… and that often I liked falling asleep because I
knew that I would find my little house again.
But this was not any more Grandmama as I knew her. The illness had marked,
diminished, withered her. Johnny had spoken of it with Aunt Irène. Her appearance must
not be allowed to upset me deeply, at the moment when I needed all my strength for the
summer tour, and then for Olympia, where I would be at the top of the bills. So he used a
subterfuge. The tour included many cities in the south-west. He arranged a ‘very useful’
interview after the dress rehearsal in Bayonne. And, as if the idea had only just then
occurred to him:
- ‘We won’t be far from Lourdes. If you want, we can make a brief stop there…’
He continued talking about other things, but this ruse had worked. I thought of nothing
else from then on but this true pilgrimage, which would allow me to pray for Grandmama’s
recovery. The interview in Bayonne has left no imprint on my memory. But I know that we
arrived in Lourdes on Friday evening at six o’clock. I saw nothing of the city, thinking only
of my aim. The heavily ill weren’t there, the healing springs and pools are closed at this
time. Under a black veil, meditatively, I place a candle in the grotto and go to Vespers at
the church of the Rosaire. I buy medallions for all my brothers and sisters, parents, Auntie
Irène. And one for uncle Jo, who I find is less of an unbeliever than I thought. At ten
o’clock we are in a train bound for Paris. I am calm. I have done what was necessary.

- ‘This is my present for Mother’s Day… to take Marcelle and all the children, even
little Béatrice, to Paris for your ‘Palmarès’! I’ve worked Sundays and public holidays to
pay for the boys’ grey jumpers and the girls’ white coats. They’re beautiful, eh?’
- ‘Yes, Papa, very beautiful!’
He is happy, he shines. I love to see him like this. Uncle Jo has reserved for my
fourteen favourite fans three compartments in first class and places in the restaurant wagon.
They were disappointed not to see me during the day, but I have to rehearse. So I only saw
them, at the same time as the TV viewers, on the small control screen, when the camera
was turned on them. I prodded Jacqueline Duforest:
- ‘Look! That’s Matite over there! And that’s Sophie! The twins! Look at the twins!’
Theatre 102 was full, the room and wings thronged with the sixty-seven attending
Parisian children and the seventy choir singers from Créteil, footballers from Strasbourg,
stuntmen, one of whom has a swollen eye from a swordblow…
- ‘What horror!’ Mama says to me, when I tell her of the preparations for the concert,
‘you could have been the one faced with all that! But it’s truly dangerous, this television!’
A camera had collapsed on the ground, a Cadillac which had been brought onstage fell
through the floor and a cowboy girl from ‘La Vallée des Peaux-Rouges’ was bruised all
over from a fall. As Guy Lux said:
- ‘It’s that kind of day!’
Right now we are having a splendid mothers’ party at home.
- ‘And Grandmama?’
- ‘She has come out of hospital.’
I let out a cry of joy.
- ‘Oh! Thank you, dear Lord!’
- ‘She absolutely insists on seeing you. So we brought her to live with us at Croix-des-
Oiseaux. Aunt Juliette is staying with her overnight. They saw you on TV.’
- ‘Oh! I am so happy! If they let her leave the hospital it means that she’s much better,
doesn’t it?’
- ‘Of course… of course…’
- ‘I sang ‘Jezebel’ for her!’
She has passed down her love of Piaf to me. Without her I perhaps wouldn’t have
become the Mireille Mathieu that I am. She was the first to light the spark of the love of
God in me. Her eyes when she listened to a disc of Piaf’s…
- ‘Mimi! Show us your wardrobe!’
Everyone marvels at my clothes.
- ‘You love shoes so much!’ Enthuses Matite. ‘You have at least four pairs!’
- ‘Six!’
I open the cabinets and Auntie shows them her kitchen appliances.
- ‘But with all this newfangled equipment,’ Mama exclaims, ‘you won’t have anything
to do, Irène, you must always have clean hands!’
Uncle Jo has poured the champagne. We drink to Grandmama’s health, to my success.
- ‘You’ll soon bring us a fiancé from Paris,’ says Mama with a wink.
- ‘You know… I don’t have much time for that!’
- ‘If one is found, Irène will probably become engaged faster than her!’
Everyone bursts out laughing. I want to keep Matite and Christiane with me so that we
can again laugh crazily at night as we used to in our childhood.
- ‘Out of the question!’ Aunt Irène cuts off decisively. ‘You have gym and English
lessons tomorrow. And you’re rehearsing tomorrow afternoon. You must go to bed early
and sleep well. Besides, Johnny has foreseen everything. You have six rooms booked for
you in the ‘Hôtel Saint-Pétersbourg’…’
- ‘Yes, yes, that’s perfect,’ says Mama. ‘We’ve organised it: the two youngest will sleep
in our room, Matite and Christiane have one to themselves, Marie-France and Réjane have
one too, Sophie will share Jean-Pierre’s; the twins are together; Roger and Rémi will share
the sixth room, everything is in order, and it’s much more grand than at Croix-des-
Oiseaux!’
I am disappointed. I would have liked very much to spend some time with them all
again. But reason must prevail.
- ‘I have a very big bed for me alone. You’ve seen it, girls, it has a golden-yellow
eiderdown and embroidered drapes…’
- ‘But I saw that you have kept your old night-gown,’ Matite says. ‘Why? It’s beginning
to wear out. It has little colour left.’
- ‘I know. But I feel comfortable in it.’
- ‘Johnny doesn’t want you to take it with you on the tour. Nadine has bought you one
made from a gorgeous rose satin,’ says Auntie. ‘It’s the one that I’m putting in your
suitcase.’
My younger sisters want to see this rose satin night-gown. It’s true, it is very pretty.
- ‘It’s the night-gown of a true star!’ Says Matite. ‘Don’t you like it?’
- ‘Yes, yes… but how to tell you… in the other one I feel more at home…’
Réjane, who has been counting the dresses in my wardrobe, cries:
- ‘Twelve! She has twelve of them!’
- ‘But you’re living in a fairytale, my dear Mimi!’ Mama says. ‘You understand that, I
hope?’
- ‘Oh yes! You’re all to share it with me. I’m going to buy you a big house… as soon as
I can!’
Papa takes me in his arms. He can’t speak. Mama says:
- ‘Roger! Don’t cry! It’s not the time for it. The little one has to go to bed!’
Alas! The next day it is anxiety that we all share. A telegram has arrived: ‘Grandmama
urgently hospitalized. In grave condition.’ The entire family, except me, has taken the first
train back. I can’t return to Avignon. The tour begins in two weeks. Uncle Jo says that I am
not ready. It’s true. But despite myself, my thoughts turn to Grandmama.
- ‘My poor girl… my poor girl,’ says Jean Lumière to me during our lesson. ‘I know
it’s hard. You feel all tense inside…’
- ‘Yes, monsieur…’
- ‘You must withstand this test. If you fail and if your grandmother learns of it, it will
make her all the more ill.’
- ‘Help me…’
- ‘I can do nothing. I can’t do anything except tell you that the only person who can
help you is yourself. You must succeed on your tour. It is very important at the beginning
of a career. People think that you are a straw fire – quick to flare up and just as quick to die.
They must be shown that you are made of good wood.’
- ‘I would like to… but how?’
I feel distraught. My fairytale is turning into a nightmare. I am no longer Cinderella
going to the ball, but Tom Thumb, lost in a great black forest.
- ‘Lie on the ground. The earth is good for you especially, Mireille. She has already
given you much. Confide in her. You are tired, I know. Relax. Breathe slowly, without
effort. Calm yourself. Think of your grandmother, who wants you to succeed. Think of her
smile…’
- ‘I know… but in thinking of her… I forget the texts of my songs…’
- ‘They will return. Don’t worry about it. They are a part of your being. They will come
back to you…’
And in this way, by the force of his patience, Jean Lumière gently gives me the lesson
that will help me all my life.
- ‘Don’t shut yourself in with your grief. But don’t forget about it either. Those who
will be in the hall to listen to you also have troubles, concerns; perhaps they are also in
mourning. When you sing of your grief they will feel that you are close to them. Give them
your joy, but also give them your pain.’
I feel harrowed by the thought of having to do vocal exercises. But he tells me that they
don’t work in a choked throat. We will do them tomorrow. And in a voice that lulls me, he
tells me to breathe, breathe, breathe…

Grandmama’s death
- ‘Stable condition… stable condition…’, that is what Mama always tells me on the
phone. ‘And you, my darling?’
- ‘You’re not going to believe it… I have received a beautiful card, like the ones on
which they print wedding invitations, you know, but with the crown of Monaco at the top.
It’s an invitation from the Princess Grace…’
Princess Grace… I feel that the name alone lights Mama up like the Madonna. I
remember that when she was married, I was about ten years old, and Aunt Irène had
brought home magazines with photos of the royal marriage. We spent a whole evening
looking at them. She looked superb in her embroidered veil. I even played at ‘the marriage
of the princess’ with my brothers and sisters. Roger, who was then only two years old, had
played the role of Oliver the dog, with whom Grace had arrived in Monaco. He was in all
the photos! And now I would see the princess up close…
- ‘Let us hope that you won’t be seasick,’ worries Mama.
For it is the celebration of the centenary of the city of Monte Carlo, and it will take
place on the new liner ‘Renaissance’ which will link Monaco to the Isle of Elba.
As usual, uncle Jo resolves all the problems:
- ‘One: you will take pills. Two: when one has something to do, one doesn’t get
seasick. Three: you will sing ‘Le Funambule’; if you pitch about, they will think that you
are trying to express the feelings of the tightrope walker. Four: you will need a white dress.
Nadine, make an appointment with Féraud. Five: tell me, how are you going to greet the
princess?’
When he asks me questions, I know that it’s always to catch me out! I try to make a
guess.
- ‘I thank her for inviting me to her boat.’
- ‘No. It’s not her boat.’
- ‘I say to her: Good day, Princess!’
- ‘No.’
- ‘Madame Princess?’
- ‘No.’
- ‘Madame… uh… Your Highness?’
- ‘No. You keep quiet. You say nothing. You listen when she speaks to you, if she
speaks to you. You don’t attempt to shake her hand. You wait until she gives you her own
hand… if she does! And you curtsey to her. You have to take lessons in curtsying.’
- ‘But I know how to already!’
He has grabbed his camera. He is going to repeat the scene in Geneva. But this time he
will receive a surprise. I am familiar with curtsys! We dipped and bent into them when my
girlfriends and I played Cinderella… so! I execute one, sure of myself. Only my skirt is too
short and rides up just above my thighs. But in a long skirt it will be perfect.
- ‘Isn’t it good, Johnny?’
- ‘There is only one unbiased judge: this!’
He taps his camera and gives it to Nadine. To tell Bruno to busy himself developing it
at once.
Bruno is a Jack of all trades when it comes to anything to do with technology. As an
excellent sound technician, he has now received a permanent position with us from uncle
Jo. In step with all the new discoveries in his field, of Italian origin, not very tall, always
smiling, he became for me – me, with my mania of giving nicknames – ‘Piccolo’ (bambino,
little one). Nadine and Yvonne, the secretary from Avenue Wagram, begin to call him that
too, and ‘Piccolo!’ occasionally even escapes from the mouth of uncle Jo. The next day,
Piccolo brings the film. We have a cinema seance in the office. The curtains are closed. The
film projected. Catastrophe dawns.
- ‘How do you find it? Nadine? Piccolo?’
- ‘Perhaps a little awkward…’ she says.
- ‘…cute,’ he says.
- ‘And you, Mireille, how do you find yourself?’
- ‘Not very good…’
- ‘I hope so! Look: your bottom is uplifted, your legs are apart, your little finger is
sticking out ridiculously and your smile is fixed upon your face… Nadine, find me Jacques
Chazot.’
Jacques Chazot: I know of him. He is a TV star, and I often see his image in
magazines. I am a little frightened because I know that he is one of the most sarcastic
people in all of Paris and that he is very witty. He will find me extremely stupid…
- ‘But no,’ says Johnny. ‘He ridicules Holy Marys and scarlet women. But you are a
Virgin Mary! So everything will be all right. And in any case, we’re not talking about your
personal qualities, we’re talking about your walk!’
It turns out that his first word is accompanied by a wide smile: ‘Ah! Bravo! You’re on
time!’
He is pretending to believe that this happens very rarely in show-biz. The meeting
takes place in Clichy Square’s Wacker Studios, where dancers rent rehearsal rooms. Doors
slam in corridors, allowing little girl-dancers, who resemble those in the painting by Degas
– lesson remembered! – which I saw on my first visit to Johnny’s house, to make their
escape. But these have hair stuck to their foreheads with sweat, fatigue showing on their
faces. On passing a class in one of the rooms, I see that the girls and boys are dressed in
woollen leggings and big jumpers, with scarves draped about their hips, although the early
June sun gently caresses us. They are warming up their muscles, in the same way that I am
learning to warm up my voice. An authoritative voice chants: ‘And one, and two, and three,
and four… start again!’
Start again. Uncle Jo’s favourite phrase during recording sessions. Start again… start
again… it is also the phrase which will often be used by M. Chazot. He has made me put on
an old skirt to serve as an evening gown.
- ‘Before your curtsy, you must come closer to the princess. Walk… ah no! Not like
that. You’re not doing your military service!’
Frightened, I discover that my belief that I had known how to walk from the age of
fifteen months was an illusion… I don’t know much at all, not even this!
- ‘Relax, relax,’ he says. (He shakes my arms.) ‘Untense yourself.’ (He presses lightly
on my shoulders.) Be supple here too… hold yourself freely! Don’t stiffen up… don’t bow
your head. Don’t use your arms for balance. Let them fall down the length of the body
naturally.’
But my ‘natural’ is to be a ‘good little soldier’ – as I’ve often been told! It’s going to be
necessary for me to carry phone books on my head every morning, learning to straighten
out the neck, and to walk on tiptoe to flex the feet, as well as the knees… the first lesson is
over and I haven’t yet learnt how to curtsy, I haven’t yet even learnt how to walk! It will
take ten lessons for me to plunge down smoothly, instead of folding up like a nutcracker.
We try again… and again… and I begin to adore Jacques Chazot. He is as funny during
breaks as he is demanding during lessons! He has the gift of storytelling, which I admire, as
I myself don’t possess it. But I can listen to stories hundreds of times, and laugh at every
retelling! The age of certain actresses, especially, is an inexhaustible subject:
- ‘She is at least sixty years old!’
- ‘But no. At most fifty. That is, before the birth of Jesus Christ.’
Their coquettishness, too:
- ‘Oh, yes, we are just like weather vanes. We only stop twirling and spinning when we
have rusted thoroughly!’
And their snobbery:
- ‘Oh! What a beautiful mink coat you’re wearing!’ Says one.’
- ‘‘It’s very practical,’ says the other. ‘You should buy yourself one, you who has
always had the figure of an ace of spades. Under it, it doesn’t matter which shabby dress
you put on. You will invariably look chic!’’
I don’t know whether it’s because I always confuse my right with my left, or whether it
is because I am still dyslexic at times, but in my mind this becomes: ‘She is at least sixty
years old when we have rusted thoroughly, and with the ace of spades you will always look
chic!’ Which doesn’t make any sense at all!

- ‘Hello, Mama? I’m in Monaco. If only you could see how beautiful it is! There are
garlands of lights, banners, it is as if the city stands on water, and it shines on everything
around it. It resembles a piece of jewellery. You know: a large diamond brooch and… can
you hear the noise of the fireworks? They illuminate the entire port.’
- ‘So you have sung on the boat.’
- ‘Yes! It’s much smaller, but much prettier, than the ‘Richelieu’!’
- ‘But you won’t sail on it?’
- ‘No. The ball is taking place on the quay at the moment. I’ve never seen more
beautiful dresses, Mama. It’s unbelievable that such things actually exist. There are ladies
who are wearing diadems worthy of queens.’
- ‘Are they queens?’
- ‘I don’t know. Perhaps… they look as though they are.’
- ‘Have you seen the Princess Grace?’
- ‘Yes. Before the performance, Rainier and Grace came into the little salon where the
artists were, with champagne and everything necessary to go with it. But I can’t drink
anything before singing, except Auntie’s lime infusion. I had my thermos standing in a
corner. The Princess had flowers, and some jewellery too, in her hair. She is luminous! M.
Chazot will be happy: I made my curtsy while looking at her, not at my feet.’
- ‘Did she speak to you?’
- ‘She told me that they liked me very much, at the palace! They both thanked us, and I
think it’s much nicer to do it before the performance than after. There isn’t as much
tension!’
- ‘Wait… I’ll pass the phone to your father.’
- ‘Hello, Mimi? Did you see Maria Callas?’
- ‘No, Papa. I’ve heard here that the Onassis and the Rainiers have fallen out with each
other.’
Papa’s voice sounds disappointed:
- ‘Ah! It would have been the pride of my life to have known that my little girl had
sung before Callas!’
- ‘They wouldn’t have pleased her, my little tunes… perhaps.’
- ‘But of course!’ He protests. ‘She’s a lady who knows what a real voice is. As I do, as
does anyone who knows opera. I’m not saying that you’re Callas. But a smile from her, that
would have been worth the compliments of the entire world!’
- ‘And Grandmama?’
- ‘She’s stable…’ (His voice becomes sombre…) ‘She still speaks to us of you all the
time. She wants to know what your dress looked like. But Mama hasn’t seen it, your
concert dress. I hope someone took photos?’
- ‘Yes, Papa… it’s terrible to be so close and yet… we’re going back tomorrow as
early as possible, because we have rehearsals with the musicians. I’ll manage… but it’s
difficult, to perform ten songs one right after the other! During the tour, when we’re close
to Lyons, I will try to come and visit…’
We leave with five musicians, including dear Francis Lai. The opening night occurs in
Geneva in a skating rink which seats six thousand spectators and allows another twelve
hundred people to watch, standing or sitting on folding chairs. I am aware of something
new: an atmosphere of competition, a sportive ambience.
- ‘We had to turn people away,’ says the director.
I think: ‘They had to turn people away because of Fernand Raynaud,’ because he tops
the bill for the second half. Me, I am performing in the first, with my ten songs, including
the one that was written for me by Michel Legrand: ‘Veux-tu qu’on s’aime.’
- ‘Don’t fool yourself,’ Fernand says to me. ‘It’s you they’ve come to see, you. You are
right behind Halliday in terms of highest disc sales, him with a single song, you with two!’
It’s true that as soon as I announce ‘Qu’elle est belle’ and ‘Mon credo’, the two songs
in question, the hall explodes.
Fernand Raynaud likes me very much. I often see him standing between the curtains
side-stage. He listens to me sing… and he only returns to his dressing room during the
entr’acte. This entr’acte… it’s his ongoing nightmare. During a summer tour, concerts are
held in casinos, in garden theatres, in the open air, and the interval triggers a merry mood.
There are vendors of beer, of lemonade, lucky dip bags, nougat, balloons… when Fernand
comes onstage, there is still the thud of empty bottles being thrown in the bins, the rustle of
bonbon wrappers, children’s cries. One evening, he simply can’t stand it anymore and
leaves, gesticulating angrily. The next day, before the organiser has time to announce the
interval, he leaps onstage and begins his programme. The vendors are flabbergasted. They
crowd in the wings, furious. They surround uncle Jo, demanding that he stop Fernand
Raynaud!
- ‘Stop Fernand when he is onstage?’ He says to them, keeping his calm, very like a
cowboy among Indians. ‘It would amount to trying to stop the Paris–Vintimille express by
waving a hand like a hitchhiker!’
- ‘Yes, but what about us, these are our earnings! We’re losing a whole night of
takings!’
Johnny asks what they estimate their losses to be and says:
- ‘Come. I will settle with you.’
They are thus suddenly quieted and have to follow him in silence. Every evening from
then on, Johnny forestalls things by paying the petty salesmen back the loss they would
have suffered. On the third evening, Fernand, waiting to come onstage with his wife Renée,
who supports him in the famous sketch, ‘22 in Asnières’, says:
- ‘They told me that the little merchants would make trouble if I suppressed the
interval, but as you can see, everything has gone very well!’
In her sweet voice, she explains the situation to him. Fernand’s blue eyes widen in
amazement:
- ‘But Johnny never said anything to me! Well… he’s a real gentleman!’
I am not a little proud of my uncle Jo. It’s true that he is very good at smoothing things
over. And it’s true that Fernand explodes from time to time. When, for example, they (he
and his wife) are invited to dinner by a prefect after a gala, and the prefect begins criticising
Jean Nohain. To Fernand, Jay is sacred. He was the one who discovered him, and he
believes, as do we, that ‘Thirty-six Sparks’ is a fantastic program which amuses the whole
of France except Madame the prefect. When she continues to insist obstinately, he rises,
calls her a ‘great idiot’ and continues on in the same fashion, as he is a good improviser. As
it is impossible to stop him on the stage, so it is impossible to stop the momentum of
Fernand Raynaud off it. The quiet Renée, who has made them into a perfect couple for
more than ten years, knows that it’s useless. The entire dining room is stupefied. They both
get up from the table and the prefect threatens:
- ‘You’ll never set foot here again!’
- ‘You were a little bit too fierce, as usual…’ Johnny says the next morning.
- ‘It was she who was too fierce. I will never permit anyone to touch a single hair on
Jay’s head, even when he has lost them all!’ (The funniest thing is that less than a year
afterwards, the same city called Fernand Raynaud and asked him to perform for them: the
prefect had retired!)
Fernand is even more superstitious than I, which I thought impossible. He never says
that things are going well for fear that they go badly. Therefore his favourite expression is
‘it’s pottering along’!
We all leave in a caravan: there is Johnny’s car, driven by Victor, our chauffeur, an ex-
TV cameraman whom uncle Jo had hired to work for him, and who transports the two of us
and Aunt Irène; the musicians’ two cars, Piccolo’s van with sound and lighting equipment,
and Fernand in his large car, which he drives faster than anyone else in our entourage, but
which doesn’t necessarily mean he arrives before us, as he likes to stop often, having
friends in all corners of France.
I love the atmosphere of a tour, the road, the journey, the people one meets, the
unforeseen events, as well as the rigour and equilibrium needed when every evening there
are meetings with the public, which cannot be evaded. I don’t pine for either the rue de
Chézy, nor for Paris. I didn’t expect it, but… I discover in myself the soul of a wandering
acrobat! (A true wandering acrobat wouldn’t have as much luggage, however…)
In every city, there are meetings with reporters, with record dealers, and this is not
exactly what I enjoy or want. My timidity returns. I want to be elsewhere. Aunt Irène
prepares me painstakingly for these meetings. My Southern hair is strong, capable of
withstanding the harsh effects of wind and sun, but it becomes greasy very quickly.
Therefore, to make it look superb, and still as natural as possible, she shampoos my hair
each day with a very gentle product, made for babies’ hair. To roll it into curlers, let it dry,
don the performance dress, prepare the one for the post-performance reception with
celebrities and nobility, prepare yet another, simpler one for interviews, tidy the things in
my dressing-room, pack them away after the performance, all this is a load of work to
which the catering to my flights of fancy (as Johnny calls it) must be added. Which is what
makes us arrive very early at the theatre, however small or dingy: I rehearse with the
musicians, I test the mikes and lighting with Piccolo… and I see nothing of the city.
- ‘Of course, you have seen our cathedral (or our museum, or our panorama)?’ They
say to me at dinner.
After a negative response, they look disappointed. I promise to return… and the next
day we are back on the road. Then the most difficult thing is to get enough of the sleep
about which Johnny cares so much. But I nod off with equal ease, whether in the back of
the car or in the dressing room.
- ‘It’s God’s blessing, to be able to fall asleep thus, no matter where…’ says Aunt
Irène.
But this pleasant balance of things shatters suddenly in Gérardmer.
I am in my dressing room. The curtain will go up in two hours. I’ve done my vocals,
seen the positioning of the lights, tested the microphones. Aunt Irène enters… and from her
extremely pale face, I guess:
- ‘Grandmama?’
- ‘Yes…’
- ‘She’s very ill…?’
Silence. Irène enfolds me tightly in her arms.
- ‘It’s over.’
I can’t even let out a cry, when I hurt. It all stays inside and crushes my heart. I want to
flee, to fly on wings of lightning to Avignon, come to her side, press my face against hers,
perhaps once more see her eyes, touch the hands that so often cooled my forehead when I
had a fever. If I had been there, I would have been able to hug her gently, helped her to die,
perhaps murmured into her ear one of the songs she so loved, said to her: ‘I love you, I love
you, we’ll meet again, I’ll rejoin you one day, God unites those who love each other… you
know well, songs are always right…’. But it’s Aunt Irène who hugs me, who murmurs
words of consolation, who wipes my face with cool water…
- ‘I want to speak to them… is there a telephone here? When did she die?’
- ‘…Yesterday morning at five o’clock.’
- ‘And you didn’t tell me until this evening!’
- ‘But we didn’t know, Mireille. We were only informed just now. She passed away in
hospital, you know. That is where they’ll hold the wake. They couldn’t ask you to come in
time. And then, they know that you sing every night…’
Johnny appears at the door to the dressing room. Auntie tells him that I want to make a
call to Avignon at once. He takes me to the head office. But naturally, the number of the
drug store doesn’t respond. It’s too late at night.
- ‘We’ll call them tomorrow. You can’t do anything else right now.’
- ‘I want to speak to Papa. He must hurt so much… she was his mother!’
- ‘Mimi, the audience is already beginning to arrive… some come from here, some
from very far off… do you feel brave enough to sing?’
- ‘I must, isn’t that right?’
- ‘That’s what the job demands… but if you can’t… we’ll make an announcement.’
- ‘And then?’
- ‘And then, I’ll ask Francis Lai and the musicians to fill the gap in the programme that
would have been your allocated time. Fernand hasn’t yet arrived.’
- ‘No. I’ll go get ready.’
I ask him to spread the word: no one should speak to me, so that I don’t break down. In
the mirror I use when applying make-up, I notice my red and swollen eyes. My throat is
dry, as if all the tears had drained from my body. I don’t know whether my voice will
emerge.
- ‘I’ve put a lot of honey in your infusion…’ Auntie says to me.
It’s funny how, during times of great grief, all movement becomes automatic. One
seems to split in two. She makes me drink, does my hair while I rub on foundation, and
when I look at myself in the mirror, I see someone else’s face… brusquely, when I don’t
expect it at all, comes Grandmama’s voice. I hear her as though she were there: ‘Not too
much blush, Mireille, or you’ll look like a street woman!’ The tears return. A flood of them
which washes my entire face. I have to start everything over again. I dry my eyes. Start
again. This little key phrase which pursues me. Start again. Always start again.
- ‘You’re sure that you can do it?’ Asks Auntie.
I reapply the foundation. And much less blush. I’m sure that’s how Grandmama would
have preferred it…
I don’t know how I sing, whether it’s well, whether it’s badly. I know that ‘Mon credo’
emerges from my breast like a knife being pulled out. I hear ‘bravos’, bravos much stronger
than usual. Johnny spirits me into the car and we fly to the hotel.
- ‘It’s odd, Johnny. The audience, I had the impression they knew… when I went
onstage, the applause was very strong, but no one spoke. Usually they whisper comments to
each other; I caught some of them occasionally - sometimes it’s about my dress, my
hairstyle, other times just to point out: there she is…’
- ‘It’s possible,’ says Johnny. ‘There are a few lines in the papers…’
- ‘Ah! I understand! That’s why Aunt Irène…’
- ‘It were better that you learnt from us rather than from strangers. In any case, it can’t
change anything. Tomorrow, we’ll be at Voulte-sur-Saône. The distance is not as great.
After the performance, we’ll set out, and you’ll spend the morning in Avignon. But we
can’t stay for the funeral at two o’clock. We must leave well before then: you’re singing in
Saint-Etienne in the evening…’
I tell him that I don’t want to see any reporters. I don’t want to speak, at all. But
onstage, yes, I will continue. And it’s good that the public knows… I have given them my
life, it is normal that they should give me their compassion.
At Voulte-sur-Saône three thousand people have gathered under a marquee. Fernand
Raynaud comes in softly while I am in the caravan which serves me as a dressing-room. He
hands me a piece of paper folded in half and goes out. I unfold it and read:
‘The worst griefs soften eventually, little by little. Happily, you have the courage to go
on, dear Mireille, to prove that you are the greatest of all the singers in France. The whole
world admires you all the more this evening.’ And the signature: ‘Fernand Raynaud’… the
greatest, I, who feel so miserable, so insignificant.

I arrive in time to see her face once again. How small and fragile she seems, lying in
the coffin. It is closed after I arrive. Without meaning to, Mama says the most cruel thing of
all to me:
- ‘Until the last moment she called for you, your poor Grandmama. You came too late.
But I know, you had no other choice.’
Papa, who I thought was so strong, cries like a lost little boy. My brothers and sisters,
even the youngest, who knew her less well than I, take part in the mourning. Johnny
removes me from the general embracing, showered with endless tears, once the neighbours,
the friends, perhaps even the curious, begin to arrive. It seems to me that there are many
people whom I do not know. I huddle up against Irène, and we retake the road to Saint-
Etienne.
I will always remember the stage behind the red curtain and the microphone which,
loudly, like a parrot, repeated the soft words I confided to it. And there will always be the
bravos, which roll over me from head to toe and don’t allow me to so much as move.
Fernand, as usual, stands in the wings, looking at me as though to say: ‘I am here. We love
you!’ And I feel strong. I have held out. I am holding out. And I will hold out. As if I still
had my hand in Grandmama’s firm grip, when we went across the fields collecting herbs
and she stopped me from falling.

Millionaire at twenty years


I don’t read the morning press. According to Johnny, it is flattering. But because it is
very difficult to resist reading a magazine which has you on its cover, I learn in ‘Jours de
France’ that, ‘not classified in any category (belonging neither to the old wave nor the
new), she already appears as the number one singer, and owes her success to her talent
rather than to any school of music. The power of Mireille lies in her being a classical singer
with a modern phrasing…’ I think Papa would have liked that expression.
- ‘Do you think you have the ability,’ asks Johnny, ‘to sing ‘La Marseillaise’ at
Deauville for the 14th of July?’
- ‘Really? They asked me to do it? But it’s a great honour!’
- ‘You bet! You’ll follow in the footsteps of Chevalier, Trenet, Gréco, Bécaud…’
Like everybody, or almost everybody, I don’t know much of the ‘Marseillaise’ beyond
the first couplet. The rest of the tour progresses to the sound of the national hymn which I
don’t tire of ‘chewing’ over and over so as to have the words committed to heart:

Que veut cette horde d’esclaves


De traîtres, de rois conjurés?
Pour qui ces ignobles entraves
Ces fers dès longtemps préparés?

It’s worse than ‘petit pot de beurre’… I can’t manage it. The words morph into ‘traites
de rois, ces fers si’ or ‘ces fers pour’.
- ‘But uncle Jo, there are no longer either slaves or kings these days, can’t the verse be
omitted?’
- ‘Do you agree to sing ‘La Marseillaise’ or do you not? You astonish me, Mireille,
you with a father so patriotic that he takes off his hat when he hears the‘Marseillaise’ on
the radio!’
- ‘Yes, but I’m talking about the words, not the tune. They’re the difficult part!’
- ‘I’m sure that your father knows them.’
- ‘What Papa sings is the ‘Marseillaise’ of the prisoners:

Dans le cul, dans le cul (Up the arse, up the arse


Ils auront la victoire. Is where they’ll have their victory.
Ils ont perdu They have lost
Toute espérance de gloire. All hope of glory.
Ils sont foutus They are done for
Et le monde en allégresse And the world rejoicing
Répète avec joie sans cesse In unceasing joy is voicing
Ils l’ont dans l’cul They’ll have it up the arse
Dans l’cul Up the arse.)

Uncle Jo is astonished. No, of course swearing isn’t encouraged in the Mathieu


household. But the words are vivid, they say what they want to say plainly.
- ‘It’s true that Roger likes to sing that!’ Says Auntie, coming to my aid.
Uncle Jo admits that it’s easier to remember than ‘tremblez, tyrans! Et vous perfides,
l’opprobe de tous les partis…’, and here’s another bit, ‘l’opprobe de tous les partis’, which
I can’t even begin to pronounce.
- ‘Bite a pencil between your teeth and articulate it carefully, like Robert Manuel
taught you. ‘L’opprobe’ and not ‘l’eau propre’!’
In the end, we decide to keep the ‘cohorts étrangères’ and ‘l’opprobe’ if I can learn to
articulate them (‘start again… start again!’), but we cut the ‘horde d’esclaves’ and the verse
about the ‘complices de Bouillé’, since the poor man is long forgotten. And yet, I know
who he is! I looked him up in the dictionary which I always take with me everywhere, as
part of my luggage. It was he who tried to help Louis XVI flee to Germany. I still prefer
‘Le Chant du départ’, though. I believe it’s better, as a song about the Revolution. I really
hope to have the occasion to sing it one day.
- ‘Perhaps,’ says Johnny. ‘But learn the ‘Marseillaise’. Believe me: it will serve you
better in the future!’
In any case, it is worth it to live in Deauville’s Hotel Normandy, in the suite used by
King Farouk!
I will blow out my twenty candles far from my family.
We’re in Hossegor. Last year, when I was at the holiday camp here, Mama had sent me
a cake which she had baked. I shared it with ‘my’ children. It seems so long ago to me
now… this year, it is I who will give a present to my parents: the car of their dreams, which
will spare them much walking about and much fatigue. I can permit myself this, as Johnny
has told me:
- ‘There you go, Mireille. You’re a millionaire!’
It’s a magic word, even for those who, like me, can’t count. The car was delivered to
Avignon. Papa doesn’t return it. He can finally take advantage of his driving license, which
up to now had never been of any use to him…
It’s holiday time, and Johnny has assembled together those of my friends who were in
the vicinity: there is Roger Hanin, Guy Lux, Jean Poiret and Françoise Dorin, Michel
Creton and Maurice Biraud… there are flowers, presents - a gold compact powder, a plush
sheep - and much laughter. Johnny says that they should have given me a life jacket, as I
always refuse to go swimming or to venture anywhere near water…! His own present is
sumptuous:
- ‘I know that you remain faithful to your ‘almost gold’ medallion, and that you don’t
like jewellery. But this isn’t a piece of jewellery: it’s a work tool! You have a tendency to
always be late.’
It’s a gold watch. Auntie marvels at it. She fastens it on my wrist before we go back
down to rejoin our guests. I don’t yet know that I will grow to like watches… so much that
I will acquire a collection!
The tour of France continues. In Bordeaux, I receive a strange phone call:
- ‘Mademoiselle Mathieu, would you agree to pose nude?’
- ‘No. Why do you ask?’
- ‘It’s very serious. ‘The painters witnessing our times’ are having an exhibition in
Galliera, in January. The sculptor Mougin has decided on you as a model.’
- ‘I am very honoured. But nude, no. Not even in a bathing suit.’
- ‘Ah? Well. He’ll be very disappointed. There is nothing dishonourable in it! In the
case of a negative reply from you, he has told me that he still won’t give up: tant pis. He’ll
just use his imagination!’
‘Paris-Match’ places me on its cover with the title: ‘Holiday France acclaims her
husky voice. Is it the end of the ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ era?’ And, inside, the bill of the summer
tour bears the heading: ‘At the box office of the beach, Mireille again emerges victorious.’
‘She has been singing for six months. And she doesn’t have another free date until
February 1967, singing at Olympia in mid-September, and appearing on television in the
USA in October and December. The object of much curiosity as well as adulation, Mireille
has reached the hearts of all audiences. She has attracted a full hall at the casino in
Deauville, she will return to the Canet-Plage casino, where on the 18th of July they had to
deny people entry; she filled the casino at Touquet, and they turned away 500 people at the
casino in Royan, where she will sing again on August 31st; the open-air theatre in Pharo,
Marseilles, regretted being unable to book her for a second engagement; two thousand five
hundred people had come there to hear her last Tuesday, and no fewer would have come
again.
‘Mireille is patiently awaited by the casinos in Divonne, the garden theatre in Nice, the
casino in Dieppe, the garden theatre at Clermont-Ferrand which has a seating capacity of
six to seven thousand people; she sang at the Mauberge fair in the morning and evening,
before twelve to fifteen thousand people. Her fee is 6000 francs.’
Then the article goes on to talk about last summer’s great revelation, the variety show
presented by Adamo, who drives around France in his Mercedes; and about Aznavour,
describing how few casinos are able to engage him, as his fee reaches nearly fifteen
thousand francs: though in actual fact he earns very little, every performance of his being a
whole show for which only he bears the cost.
Due to his success abroad, this is the first time in three years that he will tour France.
Bécaud is billed a week in advance and is accompanied by a pianist and five other
musicians; Sacha Distel’s rise is steady, he has given sixty-five concerts, twenty more than
the year before. Jacques Brel shows his worth. ‘After he has paid his crew, he doesn’t have
much left. He sometimes has to sing just for his own pleasure…’ concludes the reporter.
How time runs…I’ve travelled nineteen thousand five hundred kilometres in sixty-
three days and sung seventy times.
Things go by quickly: I apply make-up, rehearse, run, run, sing, sleep, start again, work
on new songs with Francis Lai, start again… sometimes I feel melancholy, weary to the
point of death. Therefore I think of my songs. Depression comes and goes, and life
continues. Last Sunday, in Nay, a small city of three thousand five hundred inhabitants
between Pau and Lourdes, we stopped at an inn on the bank of the Gave river… it was five
a.m. (I had sung at Saint-Céré…) and the air was marvellously clear with the freshness of
dawn. I think to myself how I would love to stay here and watch the sun rise into the sky…
but I must go to bed. Auntie awakens me at six in the evening. At seven, she tells me: ‘You
must eat.’ She has ordered a light dinner: a well-grilled steak, a salad and strawberries
without any cream. At 7:30 Victor is already behind the wheel, driving in the direction of
Pau. There is only a little way to go. I wrap myself in my maroon shawl. I know that
Johnny doesn’t like that colour, he thinks it only suits old women. Too bad! I like it. Auntie
has hung my performance dress, encased in a plastic dust-cover, on the back door. I’m
sitting in the front because I can sit in the rocking seat and fall asleep from the motion. I am
awakened, as we have arrived before the villa of the president of the festival committee,
who receives us for the time we have to spare before the performance.
- ‘Can we rehearse?’ I ask Francis Lai.
He grabs his electric accordion. It has a superb sound which makes me want to sing.

C’est ma première chanson d’amour


Je vous la donne sur des je t’aime…

In the street, people stop. Some young men yell, laughing:


- ‘Louder, Mireille!’
They laugh even more. I approach the open windows… they are going to have a small,
spontaneous and free concert.
It is time to go to the dressing-room. This time, it is a toilet… because to go on stage, I
must skirt a swimming pool!
Swiftly, Auntie puts my hair into five curlers and sticks my fringe and bangs to my
forehead with scotch tape.
- ‘You can sing twelve songs this evening,’ says Johnny.
It’s practice for Olympia… I apply my make-up. And then I stretch out on the floor. I
breathe the way I was shown by Jean Lumière. There: I am calm, I can put on my first stage
dress, a short red one, and shoes with square heels, the kind I like most. It’s very important
to like one’s shoes. It makes it easier to walk gracefully. The speaker announces: ‘Johnny
Stark is very proud to present Mireille Mathieu!’ and I go out… Auntie remains in the
wings, with the shawl and a glass of water.
Tomorrow we’re going back up to Paris. There will just be enough time to fly to
Germany for a very important television programme.

- ‘Hello, Papa? How are you? I’m in Berlin! No, Papa, I don’t have time, but I saw the
Wall through the car window on my way to the studio. I think it’s terrible, Papa… even if
‘they didn’t steal it’, as you say. It makes me ill at ease…’
- ‘Is that why your voice sounds so frail?’
- ‘They’re calling me to rehearsal. I’ll phone you tomorrow!’
I never lie to him, but… I don’t want him to worry. It’s so easy when people are so far
away from each other. I’m not well, it’s true. They had to call the doctor. I can barely feel
my legs beneath me.
- ‘Overwork…’ he says. ‘And a common illness in young women… a haemorrhage.
I’m going to raise her blood pressure. It’s only 8 and a half…’
He gives me an injection. I lie down to rest. I wanted to call home. But… what is
happening to me? Even to speak to them seems an insurmountable task. Johnny looks very
worried. Auntie watches me closely. The doctor has left, saying that my pulse has
improved.
- ‘When am I going on?’
- ‘You still have about an hour to go…’
- ‘Ah! Good. It’ll be all right…’
And I sleep. Grandmama’s hand leads me to the rosebush before the entrance to the
kindergarten… but there is a large hole in front of it and I fall, and they boo me, I hear
hisses… I fall… I wake up with a start. And burst out sobbing. Auntie is there at once. She
forces me to drink something unfamiliar.
- ‘The doctor said to give you this… how do you feel?’
- ‘Better. It was a dream… about Grandmama.’
- ‘Do you think you’ll be able to sing?’
Her eyes are worried. It takes my smile to reassure her:
- ‘Yes, I believe I will be able to sing ‘Oui, je crois’! What would be so terrible is…
what if my career stopped, just as suddenly as it began? You see, Auntie, it is that also
which worries me sick. More than travel, crowds, the public… Grandmama holds my hand,
but sometimes I dream that the audience boos me and my misery returns. It makes me
afraid.’
- ‘What makes me afraid is your face of an hour before. It looks much better now,
thank goodness.’
Johnny returns. He asks me whether I think myself strong enough to stand up and go to
the stage. If I think I’ll be able to sing?
- ‘You won’t have to strain yourself. They’ve been great, they’ve put mikes
everywhere… so there’s no need to worry.’
I lean on him and when we arrive on the set, the entire crew applauds. The doctor has
stayed here. He measures my pulse and smiles. That little injection did me good, eh? I don’t
want to offend him… but the best medicine for me is cries of ‘bravo’!
I am eager to continue the tour of France.
These are the first days of September, a month which I love. It is still redolent with
summer, rich in colours, in this country which has no lack of them. We are again in the
South-West, between Toulouse and Foix. Johnny books rooms in castles or inns situated in
the verdant countryside so that I can rest as much as possible. Today I slept for eleven
hours and I feel refreshed, happy. I want to put on my white and orange-striped dress.
Francis and I have decided to rehearse in the open air. On the way, I’m going to pick some
snapdragons…
- ‘Look, Francis, it’s a wild tomato! We used to pick baskets of it at home! It didn’t
cost anything, you see.’
- ‘What do you want to sing? ‘Un homme, une femme’?’
- ‘It’s a wonderful place to sing it!’
Francis takes up his accordion.
It’s true that when the sky is so blue, your soul is uplifted, inspired. The simplest words
have wings:

Ton cœur y croit


Encore une fois
Tout recommence
La vie repart…

The big top erected at Pamiers fits two thousand people. On the way there, passing
through the city, the cathedral of Saint-Antonin seems to beckon to me. I ask Johnny to
stop for just a little moment, so that I can burn a candle. The church is made entirely of
brick, with a crown of crenellations… like a castle. I must find time to send Hugues Aufray
a postcard: it’s one of the fiefs which was owned by his ancestors, the counts de Foix.
‘Saint Antonin was martyred here in 506’, reads a notice. I ask Auntie if she knows
anything about this saint. But she doesn’t… Alas! It was Grandmama who knew them all…
In the evening, I perform my twelve songs to thunderous applause. Johnny, who is
watching me from the wings, sends me back onstage with the words: ‘Go! ‘Un homme, une
femme’!’
I am troubled. It wasn’t planned. Instead of ‘da ba da’… I’ll probably sing ‘da da dé’!
- ‘It doesn’t matter,’ says Johnny, ‘it’s all still the same old ‘yeah, yeah’! You’ll be
fine!’
But I’m not content with that. I’ll just have to fight it out. How funny… nine months
ago I wasn’t afraid at all and now I tremble. I hurt all over… Is the approaching solo
concert in Olympia too much for me after all?
During supper, I don’t know how, the conversation turns to war. And I suddenly burst
into tears. Everyone stops talking, they all look at me in amazement.
- ‘I know why,’ says Johnny. ‘It’s because of Olympia… This uncertainty will come
again, Mireille, it’s normal to be afraid.’
When I went there for the first time, I didn’t think about anything but singing, without
knowing what to sing or how to do it. Now, I am in torment, I cross-examine myself, I feel
completely off-balance, and still the joy of my life is to sing. I don’t know how to do
anything else. I am unfit for doing anything else. I am absolutely ignorant, and I am
incapable of doing anything but singing. And if I lost my voice? Who could help me?
At bedtime, when she brings me her miracle tisane, the one that makes one fall fast
asleep, Auntie says:
- ‘But why do you worry so, my darling? You have the voice of the Good Lord. He has
given it to you. Why do you want him to take it back? Does that mean that you don’t trust
in him any more?’
That would be the greatest sin I could commit…
- ‘Pray for me, Auntie.’
She smiles her clear smile.
- ‘But I do it every day. You are in no danger.’

And yet… some days later…


The tour is coming to an end. We have returned to Paris in time to pack the luggage we
will need and take the car to the village of Mantes for a photo shoot. After having travelled
thousands of kilometres, it is a pleasant short journey: we’ll continue on to Trouville where
I’m singing that night. Nadine, who has stoically remained at Avenue Wagram all summer,
comes with us. The three of us, Nadine, Auntie and I, are in the first car, and Johnny is in
the second with Francis Lai and the musicians. Piccolo has gone on ahead to look at the
technical equipment. Suddenly, something seems to be happening on the motorway. There
is no time to comprehend it. The car skids and collides with the roadside fence despite
Victor’s attempts to stop it. He gets out to look at the damage and then another, strange car,
seemingly unable to brake, rams us in the back in the exact spot where I am sitting. The
shock is so violent that the door is flung open and I am thrown out. In the process, I lose
my shoes. Barefoot, looking like a madwoman, I run along the asphalt, singing at the top of
my voice:

Viens dans ma ville!


Viens dans ma rue!
Et peut-être que tu verras
Que cette femme qui t’aime
C’est bien moi!

Johnny’s car has stopped next to ours. He runs after me. He is extremely upset.
- ‘What’s wrong, Mireille? What’s happened? Are you hurt?’
I read in his eyes that he thinks I’ve gone crazy.
- ‘No… I only want to make sure I haven’t lost my voice. I’m singing this evening.’
He leads me gently back to his car. Nadine climbs out of ours, her hand on the back of
her neck. Auntie joins us, apparently unhurt. Victor, aided by the musicians, is trying to
drag our luggage from the trunk. They don’t succeed – the back of the car is completely
crushed.
- ‘Dear Lord! How lucky that the instruments were with us!’ Cries Francis.
- ‘And my dress! My dress is totally destroyed!’
We search for my shoes, which were thrown several metres. Johnny says too bad about
the shoes, we must leave immediately and see a doctor. We leave Victor with the wreck. I
didn’t feel anything before, but now I hurt all over, and my legs are especially painful.
When we arrive at the theatre and Piccolo sees us, everything goes topsy-turvy. I am made
to lie down on a sofa. Doctor Giraux arrives; nothing turns out to be broken. There are
multiple bruises, particularly on the legs. An injection, some tablets… he is used to
performers and artists: he is the physician of Cecile Soel!
- ‘But doctor, I mustn’t sleep! I’m going onstage in one and a half hours!’
- ‘Calm down: sleep is a tonic to help restore you. You have very low blood
pressure…’
He examines Auntie and Nadine. And comments that we were very lucky. And
doubtlessly we were. But my legs? Am I going to have bruises for a long time? My debut at
Olympia is in ten days..!
I try to calm myself with breathing exercises, but my sides hurt me when I breathe. It’s
already time to prepare to go onstage. The doctor tells me that he’ll remain in the wings.
Auntie, who is still very shaken, stays in the dressing room, and it’s Johnny who hands me
the glass of water. I am forced to go behind the curtain to drink more often than usual. My
throat is horribly dry and my temples are throbbing. But in the end… I take the concert all
the way. And its success is such that I have to do an encore of ‘Mon credo’. Finally it is
over. I go offstage and collapse into Johnny’s arms, bursting into tears to top it off. Entry is
barred to the people wanting to go backstage. The doctor gives me another medicine
unknown to me. I feel as though I can never get up again. Who was it that called me the
puppet of Johnny Stark? Now it’s true: I’m no more than a little broken doll.
- ‘How many more concerts do you have to do?’
- ‘Two before Olympia: at Dieppe and Chauvigny.’
- ‘Cancel them, Monsieur Stark. You all need ten days of complete rest.’

‘Paris, 5 September 1966


‘My dear parents,

‘I was unable to call you this evening, although I wanted to talk to you very much.
‘Everything is going well at the moment, I am happy and am rehearsing ‘hard’ (despite
the advice of the doctors whom I saw after my accident), but you know well that I live to
sing, after all!
‘I have a crazy fear of Olympia, it is such a large place for me to sing, me, who is so
little.
‘I hope to see you all very soon and I send you my dearest love. Distribute my kisses
among the little ones and my elder sisters.
‘Mireille.’

- ‘Do you realise, Mademoiselle Mireille, that it takes people many years to descend
three storeys?’
This is said by my costumer. Last time we spoke she called me ‘Mimi’ and I asked her
to go on doing so. It’s true that I’m no longer higher up, in the small dressing room next to
that of the corps de ballet, but in the one intended for the singers, wallpapered in rose and
yellow, only several metres away from the stage. I have a telephone and even a fridge with
champagne in it. As is my habit, I am there very early. And Patricia asks me if she can
schedule some interviews with the reporters. I reply that we can’t refuse. But I am not very
interesting really: I don’t have any exciting stories to tell.
- ‘What!’ Says the first journalist whom I receive. ‘But there was your accident!
Unless…’
Ah! There is a hidden meaning in the question. I can see it in his face. I wait for him to
explain himself.
- ‘There are some people in your profession who say – it’s a joke, of course – that Stark
is quite capable of organising a so-called accident to put your name on everyone’s lips. You
must admit that this happened just before your appearance in Olympia!’
What to do? There are moments when I regret not knowing judo. Well. Breathe deeply.
My silence disconcerts him. He beats a hasty retreat. It’s nothing but a joke, as he has
said… Nadine appears with newly-bought items of makeup. I introduce them. Her blue
eyes swiftly detect an air of uneasiness… I tell her that the gentleman was just speaking to
me about a staged accident… the poor man. He doesn’t know that if one dares to attempt to
touch a hair on the head of M. Stark, Nadine’s own hair stands up on her head with
indignation and her voice is raised in pursuit of the point:
- ‘Would you like to see the medical report? The correspondence with the insurance
company? The police statement? The eyewitness’s declaration? The x-ray of Mimi’s ribs?
That of my cervical vertebrae?…’
The cowed young man slips from the room.
- ‘I would like it if you stayed here all the time, Nadine. I have no wish to talk.’
Happily, Johnny arrives and takes over for the next interview, with the reporter from
‘L’Aurore’. Johnny explains to him that I shouldn’t be here, the doctor had prescribed
complete rest. Why? Nervous shock.
- ‘For the first time, she has disobeyed me.’
- ‘Why?’
- ‘Because she wants to sing.’
Johnny tells him that he even sent me a letter about it.
- ‘You write to her!’ Says the journalist, very surprised.
- ‘I have to occasionally. As you know better than anyone, words disappear. Writing
remains.’
- ‘But… you see each other every day…!’
- ‘Practically, yes. But it’s an old habit which I picked up from the 17th century when,
meeting one another daily - Paris was a small city in those days – people still didn’t write to
each other less often! Mireille is a reflective little person, calm, honest, who thinks of
nothing but her job. She works in the tranquillity of her apartment. And a letter, which she
can re-read and weigh up in her mind, teaches her more than an entire tirade given in a
heated moment.’
- ‘But this one still didn’t have an effect?’
- ‘No. Because this time it is a matter of her inner strength and she alone can judge it.’
The journalist records this conversation fairly accurately, painting Johnny and his
paternal gestures towards his ‘filly’, his way of looking after my coat, my bag… which I
am quite prone to allowing to remain behind.
What really intrigues the reporters is the manner in which I pass my time.
- ‘When I don’t have a concert or a rehearsal, I stay at home with Francis Lai, Paul
Mauriat… and we compose songs. I don’t like to go out. I never read. I don’t go to the
cinema. I don’t go to see my family. I give everything to music. It’s my life. The Good
Lord helps me to keep going. In any case, nothing else interests me. Money - I don’t think
of it.’
It seems perfectly clear to me, now and ever. But I will need to repeat it to everyone,
all the time. I ought to record it on a disc! However, they probably won’t believe me even
then.
- ‘When Antoine sings: ‘I don’t like Edith Mathieu’, does that sadden you?’
- ‘It makes me laugh. What would bother me is if he called me Mireille Antoine.’
I don’t regret my response in the least.
- ‘Hello? Mireille? It’s Maurice!’
- ‘Oh! Monsieur Chevalier! I’m so happy to hear you! You wouldn’t believe…!’
- ‘How are you, sweetheart, after that accident?’
- ‘All right… and not all right. I don’t know anymore whether it’s the shock or the
stage fright which makes it so difficult. Many things have happened in these four months.’
- ‘I know them all.’
I tell him that Johnny has given me the freedom of cancelling the concert if I feel
unwell, but it seems to me that I’ll feel even worse if I do!
- ‘You understand, Mireille, all the moments of an artist’s existence are summed up in
this simple rule: show a brave face. It’s better to earn a stiff neck looking too high than to
become hunchbacked from looking too low!.. I make you laugh? Then your mood’s getting
better!’
I admit to him that I often feel disappointed with what is said around me or what is
written about me…
- ‘My dear child, in my time there was a critic, a very great critic, who made me
despair about life… and, several years later, he found me irresistible. His compliments gave
me less pleasure than his criticisms had given me pain. Because I was beginning to
understand that for us, Mireille, the people of the stage, we only have two masters: the
audience and the director. Bruno Coquatrix has engaged you and the public adore you.
That’s all.’
- ‘And you, Monsieur Chevalier, will you come to my première?’
- ‘That’s what I’m calling you to say! And afterwards, we’ll have lunch together!’

For the first half, Bruno Coquatrix has billed Georges Chelon, who is a thoughtful and
delicate singer, and two Olympian champions, Roger Pierre and Jean-Marc Thibault. They
have an energy which flows from the stage into the wings. They hold the record for the
longest-running duo partnership in France. They are so used to each other that if one of
them begins a phrase, the other can finish it off: the result of eighteen years of working
together. If you remember that a two-year old child begins to take conscious notice of his
surroundings after he begins to walk, their career is longer even than my entire life! And
nevertheless, they have the air of college students.
Because they sense my distress, they do everything they can to make me forget it. They
tell me that once, when they were fresh out of a small cabaret in the Amiral and were at
Olympia for the first time, someone said about them: ‘They’re horses from the Tuileries
stables who want to run at the Auteuil racecourse.’ Friends warned them, for their benefit,
of course, that they were heading for a complete disaster. However, they had such a
triumph - à merveille - that one of the special guests, the Countess of Toulouse-Lautrec,
famous under the name of Mapie for her culinary recipes, loudly drummed their song ‘La
Vaisselle’ (‘The Dishes’) on a large pan, copies of which were handed out to upper-class
spectators as an accessory.
Bruno adores this sort of eccentricity. He is delighted by Johnny and Eddie Barclay’s
initiative in sending him, along with the invitations, a corrected map of Avignon, the streets
renamed with the titles of my songs and two boulevards bearing their own names, leaving
Bruno himself a mere alley! This map was transferred in part on to the disc cover of which
fifteen hundred copies were printed to hand out to the special guests of this premiere.
On the wall of my dressing-room telegrams are pinned like butterflies. Visitors remark
with amazement that, alongside the names of our own celebrities, such as Sacha Distel,
Adamo, Line Renaud, Dalida, Petula Clark, Hervé Villard, Robert Manuel, Jacques
Chazot… (among others), there are those of famous Hollywood residents, Joe Pasternak
having mobilised his team: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Bing Crosby,
Joan Crawford, Fred Astaire, Danny Kaye. In a particularly ironic look I read the thought:
‘All this is sent from Avenue Wagram! Another of Stark’s tricks!’ They can’t imagine that
Joe Pasternak already considers me part of this same team. Why disabuse them of the
mistake they have made in the address: all these telegrams come from Pelagio Road,
Hollywood.
The first to show up backstage, Vick Vance, the reporter for Paris-Match, tells me:
- ‘They’re going to give you a queen’s welcome!’
And ‘they’ arrive: Maurice Chevalier and Félix Paquet, Aznavour and the blond Ulla,
Eddie Barclay and his new wife, Henri Varna, Juliette and Marcel Achard, Pierre Barouh
and Anouk Aimée, hand in hand, brought even closer by ‘Un homme, une femme’…
I’ve remembered Chevalier’s lesson. The audience? They’ve called me back fifteen
times. Now it’s up to the director. Bruno, with his legendary calm which makes it difficult
to know, not what he thinks, but what he is, as he greets everything, whether it be triumph
or disaster, with the same complaisance, Bruno only has one word:
- ‘Victory!’
This is also tomorrow’s heading in France-Soir, with a photo of Maurice hugging me.
But I find there is a great difference between this one and the one which appeared in the
same spot nine months ago: I was alone, without my renowned godfather, in a small black
dress, my face radiant. Now it is slightly hollowed out, and the look I give Maurice is very
serious. My dress is very pretty, embroidered with semi-precious stones. The article says
that I have the control of a professional singer and speaks of the shiver of tenderness which
rolled through the hall when I presented Paul Mauriat’s orchestra in my accent. Nine
months… the time it takes to bear a child. I’m going to show myself to the world, finally
reborn as an adult.

The third crossing of the Atlantic

Olympia is only a brief stop in the whirlwind of my life: I appear here for three weeks,
at the same time preparing for the departure for America, the third of the year and possibly
the most important, as we have to make serious decisions. A young American girl follows
me everywhere, haunting my dressing-room, with the task of teaching me to speak
American, which means she often has to hold an entire conversation by herself!
Louis Féraud prepares my wardrobe and there are numerous fittings. He sews for me,
among others, a black mini-dress, illuminated by colourful geometrical figures: a yellow
spiral, red squares, a blue oval which resembles a fish. For the stage, he makes another
mini-dress, sequinned blue. For a gala, a long velvet skirt the colour of raspberries with
which goes a sweater reaching below the waist… I was charmed by a foal coat adorned by
a white collar… shoes and bags must be chosen, scarves must be decided upon…
The days run by quickly because it is imperative that I sleep ten to eleven hours each
night. It seems that the press is divided in its opinion of me… but I have no time to read
any of it. I know that, contrary to France-Soir which has already elevated me to sainthood,
Le Monde finds that I yet have much to learn; I haven't succeeded in moving Combat, but
L’Humanité believes that my hold over the public is firm. Try to sort this one out…
The feast of St. Maurice is on the 22nd of September. I order a delivery of seventy-eight
enormous apples to the house of the famed performer of ‘Ma pomme’ (‘My Apple’) in
Marnes-la-Coquette. One for each year of his life! He thanks me with a telegram, which I
add to my wall of precious butterflies.
‘Thank you, my adorable Mireille, for the colossal apples. I await your coming of age
to ask for your hand officially. You can count on your friend Maurice.’
When Mama reads this, she asks me, looking somewhat troubled:
- ‘He’s joking?’
- ‘Of course!’
- ‘Ah good!.. Because he’s a little old for you, you know!’
She makes me laugh. She has dropped in to Paris with a secret to tell me.
- ‘There are things, you understand, which we can’t tell you via the telephone at the
drug store!’
- ‘Mama, I told you… find yourselves a nice little house… I’ll buy it for you! I only
wanted to win the Critérium so that I could do this! The time has come…’
- ‘You’re sure?’
- ‘I’m sure that you can begin to look for it.’
- ‘All the same, it won’t be all that small… there’re fourteen of us… without you.’
- ‘I said ‘small’, meaning ‘cute’, but you’re probably right, it needs to be fairly large.
You’ve spent all your lives too cramped.’
- ‘Especially since soon… this is what I wanted to tell you… we’ll number fifteen!’
- ‘What!’
- ‘Yes… the fourteenth is on the way!’
- ‘Does Papa know?’
- ‘Naturally… how could he not? He did have something to do with it, you know! I’m
happy: it’ll cheer him up a little!’
What an extraordinary woman Mama is… always gay and valiant. Each pregnancy is
particularly difficult for her, with her feet so painful. I entwine my arm in hers:
- ‘I’m proud of you. Who would have thought it. When is it due?’
- ‘In six months.’
- ‘What does the doctor say? Does he think they’ll have to operate on your legs?’
- ‘We’ll deal with that later. It’s too expensive.’
- ‘But that doesn’t matter. I can afford to pay for it now! Ask him whether they can
operate on you immediately! Would you prefer a boy or a girl?’
- ‘A boy. That would equalize the sexes: seven and seven.’
- ‘Oh yes! That’s a lucky number. I’ll burn a candle to Saint Rita. What would you like
to call him?’
- ‘Vincent.’
- ‘Ah! I like it! It’s a good name in our parts! Look after yourself. Think of what
Grandmama said: eat a lot of cauliflower, mushrooms and artichokes. Why do you laugh?’
- ‘It feels as though you’re the mother talking to her daughter!’
Mama has departed for home. It’s true that I feel as tired as a future grandmother.
We’re recording the second disc. We’re rehearsing in Olympia. Johnny goes over the
details of the orchestration with Paul Mauriat. It never ends. I want to curl up to sleep
somewhere. The orchestra pit is deserted, welcoming, full of shadow. I slip in there. By the
side of a harp. It always makes me think of angels…
I start awake, feeling dazed. The stage manager is shaking me by the shoulder:
- ‘She’s here! She’s here! I’ve found her!’
It seems that they looked for me everywhere, for a whole hour, that when the time
came to rehearse a song - no Mireille. They called (I didn’t hear anything… I never do
when I sleep!). Johnny is equal part furious and worried. He thought I had returned home or
that I was window-shopping outside (how like him to think that! I never left the theatre!).
- ‘You could have been kidnapped!’
The words escape him involuntarily. Annoyed, he adds:
- ‘You can never know. There are plenty of maniacs about.’
This is how I discover that menacing letters have been arriving in his office.
- ‘But it’s normal, it’s normal!’ Says Nadine. ‘All artists receive them!’
- ‘They want to kidnap all the artists? What is this story you’re telling me?’
- ‘No… but madmen, they are capable of anything! Threats of kidnapping… but
there’s no cause for worry, it never happens! Besides, you see how Olympia is always
guarded.’
It’s true. There is a door with a large, strapping security guard, a glass cabin with
another guard inside, a fence… the door leading to the hall is double and also permanently
watched.
- ‘They’ve seen some pretty big fights here! Fans can be lunatics sometimes!’ Says the
warden.
Having calmed down, Johnny cancels the rehearsal and sends me to my dressing room
to doze the rest of the time before the performance. I again fall into a very deep sleep,
permeated with bizarre and harrowing images, menacing shadows… I end up waking and,
for fear of falling asleep again, call Francis Lai. I want to rehearse our songs. After I’ve
sung, the dark fancies will have fled. Everything becomes simple.
I’m a simple girl.
This is what I tell Johnny when, while we’re packing for the trip to America, he tells
me that I must bring some jewellery.
- ‘It doesn’t suit me.’
- ‘There is jewellery and there is jewellery. You’re not going to have to wear that of an
Indian ruler’s wife. A nice, discreet gold necklace, a bracelet, a pair of earrings, also
discreet, all this for going out, naturally, not for the stage, I assure you that it’s dignified for
the Mireille Mathieu whose name appears at the top of the bills, who is no longer a poor
little debutante. You’ll keep your gilded medallion under your blouse.’
- ‘Johnny has a point,’ says Auntie. ‘You’re a young lady, you’re no longer a child.
The truth of which I question, sometimes… your things are always so untidy…’
- ‘That’s because I’m not used to having many of them.’
- ‘No, Mireille. It’s because you don’t clean up!’
- ‘Ah! Which is what you’re crazy about, Auntie!’
- ‘Please, Mireille!’
Her voice is severe.
- ‘Head of the bills and head made of wood. In my opinion, being one doesn’t preclude
being the other!’
- ‘You can argue another day,’ Johnny cuts in. ‘Think rather of your luggage!’
I understand that Johnny is making peace; he’s absolutely brilliant. This time, we take
with us the film-maker, François Reichenbach, and his assistants. François is going to make
a TV film for the end-of-year celebrations, ‘The Fairytale of Mireille Mathieu’. The idea
charms me. Nevertheless, my first meeting with François couldn’t be called love at first
sight. He explained it frankly, moreover:
- ‘At first, I didn’t want to hear of it because I was afraid of betraying another
singer…’
This is also how he begins his film. To me, he says more gently than at our first
meeting:
- ‘You understand, Mademoiselle, it’s very difficult for me to listen to you because I
adored and will always adore Piaf.’
- ‘I understand very well, Monsieur. I also. If she hadn’t existed, I would perhaps never
have had the push I needed and I would then still be gluing envelopes!’
The look in his eye changes. I know it well now, the look in his eyes. He can see
everything or nothing, at will. When he’s not interested, he becomes like a dull pewter
statue. He agreed to join us in Avignon when I was given a reception at the city hotel… He
went to see the little monster of whom the whole world spoke in her natural setting, with
curiosity, not aggressively, as he is incapable of it, but also coldly. I was happy because he
had filmed M. Colombe, very emotional in his speech, speaking of ‘the fresh, rejuvenated
and youthful song’ of the little ‘100% Avignon native, very attached to her home town and
her deserving family…’, finishing with the announcement that I would return to sing to the
maladjusted children in Vaucluse. I was glad that there was a camera, since the entire
Mathieu family was there, around me, in front of the bust of Marianne. I was glad, because
I’ve always liked pictures. They influence me the most, more than words, as I haven’t read
much. The day when I said this to Reichenbach, there was a spark in his eye.
- ‘Do you know of Cocteau?’
- ‘The gentleman who filmed ‘Beauty and the Beast’? I saw photos in a magazine, with
an article about Jean Marais, but I haven’t yet seen the film. I would like to… when I have
time… and I also know that he died the same day as Piaf. I saw it in the newspapers.’
His eyes become a very gentle blue.
- ‘This man was my friend. He said to me one day: ‘The images you film are words. To
edit a film is to assemble phrases and sentences…’ Without knowing it, you are saying the
same thing. I’ll show you his drawings sometime…’
When he learns that I was born on the 22nd of July, he jumps:
- ‘Ah! I understand! You’re a Cancer! Like me! I was born on the 3rd! And Cocteau, he
was a Cancer too… It’s the sign of the eye, of the imagination. When I was little I didn’t
speak much, which angered my father, who thought me deceitful. When he understood that
I looked rather than spoke, he declared me a dreamer. An observer would have been fairer.
You must also like to observe?’
- ‘Yes. But it’s true that I don’t speak much, except when I’m with my family…’
We had become friends, changing to ‘tu’ instead of ‘vous’ without noticing; and with
Cancers, friendship is for life.
As we went along, we discovered common interests: he was a dunce at school…
because he was a dreamer. He knew many operettas by heat, because his mother had a very
pretty voice and once a year she’d perform in charity concerts. He could look at the sky as
long as it played with light. For example, he’d say to you: ‘Ah! This evening, the moon is
completely white, if you get up early tomorrow, everything will be coloured rose!’ I would
love to see all his films… he tells me that he’ll show them to me. The previous year, he
received the gold palm at the Cannes festival for ‘La Douceur du village’. He describes the
beginning of it to me: there is a class and the teacher says: ‘Let’s speak of the cow. It the
cow useful to man? Yes. Why is it useful to man? Because it gives him its skin. And what
is the skin of the cow? It’s leather, the leather of which your satchels are made and which
are so resistant to rain. But that’s not all. What does the cow give? Well then, it gives its
milk. Let’s sum it up. It gives its skin, its meat, its milk, its horns. It gives everything.
Therefore the cow is a useful animal.’ And François adds: ‘Simple words, repeated, become
a poem to be admired, because they are true.’
And for me, it is a poetry I can understand.
He says to me:
- ‘I like your smile. It has a sort of charm. Charm is like miracles, it is inexplicable and
precious. To smile is already to love.’
And what I love about François is that he not only has eyes but also ears. Persuaded to
believe in me, at last, he accepts Johnny’s idea to reconstruct the Critérium, which he had
never attended. And here I am, to the great joy of Avignon, once more before the large
microphone, in the little black dress of my debut, singing ‘L’Hymne à l’amour’ in the open
air… with a beautiful blue sky, as though veiled with a little thin white cotton, above me,
and with a large, happy, warm audience before me… they play this game of the pseudo-
Critérium particularly seriously, as the profits from the concert will go to crippled children.
So now, we are about to depart for the America which he knows so well:
- ‘The first time I went there, my flight took almost twenty-four hours!’
- ‘What did you go there to do?’
- ‘Sell paintings, belonging to our family. It was just a pretext. The true reason was to
see the country.’
He tells me that his first move was to take out an immigrant’s registration, and that he
stayed years instead of months.
- ‘Do you know why I bought my first camera over there? Because I had no desire to
send postcards!’
He starts filming me already, on the plane.
- ‘But I want to sleep.’
- ‘That’s all right, sleep, don’t bother yourself about me. Pretend I’m not there.’
- ‘That’s not easy!’
- ‘Fine. Well then, pretend I’m here, but without the camera: it’s nothing but my eye.’
Aunt Irène tucks me in and I depart for the country of my little white house on the edge
of a blue sea… but, when I wake, reality turns out to be very different. To take us from the
airport to the Waldorf Astoria, a private helicopter awaits. ‘It’ll only last about six
minutes,’ they tell me. But when one is dying of terror, six minutes seem like a small
eternity!
- ‘Don’t film, François, we’ll fall!’
I feel certain that the needle of the Empire State Building is going to spike the
helicopter’s belly… but we escape it.
- ‘Descend a little bit more towards the skyscrapers!’ François asks the pilot.
This is when I understand that for the chance to film an interesting scene, he’d sell his
soul to the devil!
We land on the roof of the Panam, in the heart of Park Avenue. Is it imaginable?
François tells that the first time he filmed New York, fascinated by the combination of the
vertical lines of the buildings and the horizontal lines of the streets, he was so distracted
that he muddled the reels and inserted one that had already been used. This had the effect of
producing an even more fantastical city, which people had thought an amazing find,
lauding it as a work of genius, when it wasn’t much more, he said, than the result of an act
of stupidity!
- ‘This is how I became a producer, because my first film won two prizes, that of the
Tours festival and that of the Edinburgh one!’
And we laugh, we laugh…! All the more since we’ve all been put together in the
Waldorf Astoria, in the suite usually reserved for the minister Dean Rusk: it consists of
fourteen rooms! Which are all joined together. The big family! Uncle Jo and his wife
Nicole, Bruno, Popaul (Mauriat), Francis Lai, François and his three assistants. Aunt Irène,
having for the first time set foot in a palace, isn’t disoriented; imperturbable as ever, she
quickly unpacks the suitcases and brushes my hair. A team from German TV awaits me…
on the roof. This is probably almost all that I will see of New York this time: the terraced
roofs of skyscrapers, which all look the same… variety is forgotten while each skyscraper
seeks to be taller than the others. One is erected, knocked down again and another built in
its place, over and over. The Panam had only been in existence these past four years,
François assures me. He films everything he sees: the German team in the process of
filming me themselves, my hesitations, the phrase which it annoys me to say:
- ‘It’s wonderful for a little Parisian girl to find herself on the roofs of New York and to
dominate this enormous city…’
I burst out laughing: I’m not Parisian! I’m from Avignon, of course!
- ‘But the film is being made for Germany, Mimi. In Berlin, as in New York, Avignon
doesn’t mean much!’
I try again:
- ‘It’s wonderful for a little Parisian…’
And I snort. What I would like right now is to sing with all my breath, to the irresistible
waltzing melody: ‘Viens dans ma ville, viens dans ma rue!’ (‘Come to my city, come to my
street!’).
What a perfect song to sing outside!
- ‘Don’t look at us, Mimi!’
It hasn’t turned out well. We’ll have to try again tomorrow. Right now, it is necessary
to think about preparing for the soiree. A big concert, given by Maurice, held in the Empire
Room of the Waldorf. It seems that this is the most chic room in New York, perhaps the
world. The large eye of François’s camera spies me before my mirror.
- ‘You like to put on makeup, they say? You do it with pleasure and care…’
- ‘I adore it… if I had the power, I’d try new faces on, colour my eyes blue or violet…
uncle Jo would blow his top… not to speak of Papa, who doesn’t even like rice powder!’
I send François out, as Aunt Irène passes me the dress chosen by Nicole, a rose one
embroidered with gems, which sparkle at the neck and the cuffs. It’s probably also time for
him to go and dress: when he has a camera in his hand, François forgets everything, forgets
to eat, drink, change. It’s as though these things didn’t exist for him anymore!
The Empire Room is a cabaret with numerous tables, and ladies decked with diamonds
which reflect in the mirrors. Everything glitters. We French also have our tables; my seat is
at the edge of the passageway. When the presenter announces ‘The Number One
Frenchman Maurice Chevalier’, I confess I feel a little shiver of pride. He enters to cries of
‘bravo’, lively, elegant in his dinner suit, with the smile which wins him the audience at
once. Can one really believe that he is seventy-eight? Even were he forty, he probably still
wouldn’t have made a greater impression on the ladies. He takes his boater hat, dons it and
sings ‘You’re feeling blue’… and I notice that the men seem as pleased with the song as the
women. The younger ones must be thinking of all the happy days before them, and the
eldest, that there is still hope, since they are in the Empire Room with Maurice! And then,
all of a sudden, he speaks, he speaks of me, it seems, since he is pointing me out and
descending to our table… and I understand that he’s presenting me: ‘She is wonderful…
Mireille Mathieu!’ He leads me on to the stage… where I am no longer afraid of anything.
The stage is truly my own personal paradise.

Celui qui j’aime est un vaurien


Qui chante du soir au matin
Un artiste
Egoïste
Qui tient ma vie dans ses mains.

How I love it, this song of Aznavour’s! I never tire of it. And, I feel, neither does the
audience…

Celui qui j’aime est un voyou (The one I love is a ham


Mais il m’aime But he loves me
Et je l’aime And I love him
Et le reste, je m’en fous. And for the rest I don’t give a damn.)

When I go back to my seat in the hall, Aunt Irène whispers:


- ‘I keep on asking myself where you learnt all these terms?’
- ‘But it wasn’t me, Auntie. It was Aznavour.’
Claude Philippe, the director of the Waldorf, a Frenchman, tells me that all the VIP of
New York are assembled here, and on seeing my blank, ignorant gaze, elaborates: ‘The
most important people.’
- ‘You have achieved in several minutes what it takes others years to obtain… and, more
often, they don’t obtain it at all.’
Thanks to Maurice, I am not taken in. He presented me, François tells me, in a manner
at once joking and affectionate, as ‘his young fiancée, the discovery of television, who rose
to fame in France overnight’…
- ‘In that case, there was nothing for it but to go onstage…’
- ‘Yes… but you could have sung out of tune!’
After his performance, which was applauded and acclaimed, we find Maurice in his
dressing room, a towel hanging from his neck, like a boxer after a round. Now I have
trouble expressing my thanks. I smile at him, my biggest smile, so that he can see the depth
of the feeling in my heart.
And since the ‘great eye’ is always there, spying indiscreetly, he tells Johnny in front of
me:
- ‘I said everything I thought… she has something the others don’t… she has been
launched into this profession all at once, propelled by her gifts, her sweet face, her voice,
all these, together with a purity, a propriety which our singers haven’t often had. That’s
how it happens that she can take us to the reaches of happiness… she fills her songs with
melody and light; she can grow into an extraordinary artist. She will become a little master.
Loved by great people such as those here today for her uniqueness, and loved popularly
because she is a great little kid, do you understand?’
Do we understand…! Uncle Jo, Auntie both have tears in their eyes, and I feel as
though there is a great sun inside me. I must remember these words, keep them for the days
when I won’t be this happy, when I will be discouraged, perhaps, who knows? M.
Chevalier has made me the greatest present in the world: he has traced my future.
He makes me yet another present. He asks me which song of his I like the most. I give
an immediate response: ‘Ma pomme’ (‘My apple’).
- ‘The Americans also like it well. Why don’t you sing it on Andy Williams’ end-of-
year show, if he’ll have you?’
- ‘…because I don’t know it.’
- ‘Well then… I’ll teach it to you. Shall we start tomorrow?’
The next day, then, in a room where Johnny has had a piano brought in, with a laughing
Popaul before the keyboard, Maurice, wearing a sports jacket, gives me his lesson:
- ‘Ma pomme… c’est moi… ah… ah…! J’suis plus heureux qu’un roi! Your turn, my
little dear…’
- ‘Ma pomme…’ (I repeat myself), ‘Ma pomme…’
- ‘Ah! That makes two apples, that does!’
Everyone bursts out laughing. I start again because I know that there is nothing more
serious than trying to sing a song which isn’t!
- ‘Ma pomme… c’est moi… ah… ah…!’
- ‘That’s better,’ he tells me, ‘though still a bit too loud. But it’ll be all right.’
I start again, looking at myself in a mirror, as I did when I was small, sitting before my
parents’ wardrobe mirror. I must make a circle with my mouth so that the sound emerges
round and full, as Maurice manages to do so well: ‘ah… ah…!’
- ‘It’s the laugh of a peasant, do you understand? It has street wit in it. Aren’t there street
jesters in Avignon?’
- ‘Yes. Only we call them trufarèu.’
- ‘She’s the opposite of Piaf,’ insists Maurice. ‘She a comedian, this little brat here, who
nonetheless has the talent to become a great singer!’
What a compliment! I want to shower him with all the flowers that are in the sitting
room. As it seems to me that I can’t exactly throw my arms around his neck, I break into a
loud rendition of ‘Les gars de Ménilmontant’… to show him that I don’t just know the
songs of Piaf off by heart!
And here we are, already it is time to go. We ascend back up to the roof to finish
filming for the German television channel, and afterwards we are up in the wide sky once
more, in a pretty white plane which bears great white letters spelling ‘EXPO MONTREAL’
on its sides.
Perhaps because I have one, I adore accents. There is something true in them, which it
is impossible to renounce. Your native earth, which it is said you carry on the soles of your
shoes, crumbles, disappears… because shoes are often cleaned and polished. Yet when one
has an accent, it will always remain in one’s mouth, reminding one of home. The accent of
Montreal is so strong, so well defined, that despite the skyscrapers, which turn this city into
a corner of New York, you feel rested, as if you were in the countryside. Better: in the
French countryside. I am at ease here. This is why, when M. François Chamberlain, a
young official, receives me, before the cameras, the photographers, the radio reporters, all
the media rabble, and offers me a large fur wrap, which he places about my shoulders – as
the evening is already cool – I can’t hold myself back and say to him:
- ‘I would love to kiss you!’
Their sports stadium is hosting the Festival of National Songs. It is three times the size
of that in Geneva. This is the first time that I will sing before twenty thousand people. But
Johnny has taught me that the audience doesn’t matter; it is always the same. For the rest, it
is the familiar ritual: Piccolo, adjusting the mikes and the lights, the rehearsal with the
musicians, Popaul and Francis performing solo, ‘admitted’ as a special favour into an
American orchestra, Auntie standing behind the scenes with an infusion, a glass of water,
the shawl; the exit of the artists after signing photos. What is different here is that they
speak to you familiarly and with affection.
- ‘I’ll just call you ‘Mireille’…’
- ‘Oh yes!… Will we see each other tomorrow?’
- ‘Unfortunately, no, by tomorrow… I will have left!’
They look cast down. I must admit, sometimes I have the desire to go to one of their
homes, to see how they live, to stand next to their fireplaces, to know more about them, to
be a real friend… I never offer them anything more than a swift kiss, and even then I’ve
gotten into the habit of putting my cheek forward and allowing myself to be embraced,
rather than pressing my lips to their faces, so as to protect my layer of lipstick.
Auntie, who sees me just before bedtime, looking anxious, asks me what’s the matter.
- ‘These people who love me… I am to them like a fairy princess… you know, like the
coquette in the story Grandmama used to tell; she went from one person to another,
forgetting her previous love even before her back was turned…’
- ‘But you’ve given them your voice, your smile, your heart… they’ll keep your disc,
your photo, the memory of you… what more can you do?’
- ‘Yes, I know…’
She turns off the light. The silence is heavy.
- ‘Do you remember the end of the fairy tale, Auntie? The princess was changed into a
frog.’
The silence becomes even heavier. She turns the light back on.
- ‘Have a good cry. Don’t be ashamed. It will happen more than once when you think of
Grandmama.’
It’s not Grandmama. Grandmama is always with me, she has never left. It’s the frog. I
am well acquainted with its croaking. We could hear it some evenings in ‘Chicago’, and it
always worried me: neither a true cry, nor a song… and what if, one day, I lost my voice?
What would become of me? I have nothing else…

An artist, not a tourist


I haven’t seen the maple forests and the red leaves of their trees during Indian summers.
I haven’t seen St. Joseph’s Spring of Miracles. I haven’t strolled around Beaver Lake. I
haven’t ridden a rope-cabin to the top of the Royal mountain, so I saw nothing of it save a
great cross, which at night is all lit up, and thus continues to protect the city. I’m an artist
and not a tourist, as Maurice said.
- ‘But you will return, you will return? For the Expo?’
Its building site is easily seen, cranes like long legs walking on the two islands in the
middle of the river, so beautiful, so grand, much wider than our Rhône. One asks oneself:
how is this going to be finished in some six months? A huge tower clock counts backwards:
198 days, 14 hours, 3 minutes, 20 seconds! That is the time left, at this precise moment,
before the official unveiling. Everywhere in the city there can already be seen the title of
Saint-Exupery’s book, which he has lent to the Expo: ‘Land of Man’. I find it very
beautiful… ‘Make them build a tower together and you will change them into brothers…’.
A Canadian gives me ‘The Little Prince’ at the airport, before I leave. I remember how one
day Mme Julien read us a page of it: ‘Draw me a sheep…’. But I cannot read it on the
plane. All together, we continue to make music, and I must perfect my songs. Tirelessly, I
repeat them over and over. Because I always have trouble articulating them properly.
Johnny, Francis or Popaul will call me to order:
- ‘Marbles!’ (Meaning: ‘You’ve a mouthful of marbles!’)
‘The Little Prince’ remains my secret night-time rendezvous, I read it before falling
asleep… I see him before me, so frail, so pretty with his golden hair, the hair drawn by
Saint-Ex (I know now that he was called Saint-Ex, by those who loved him). I progress
slowly, because I’ve never been a fast reader. And I even re-read some parts, because they
contain phrases which sing to me.
On arriving at Kennedy Airport, before taking the helicopter to the Panam, we suddenly
find ourselves in the midst of a nursery school class. Little Africans and Puerto-Ricans, on
seeing me, stop and stare, fascinated by my miniskirt and my red hat. It is explained to
them that I am a French Singer. They surround me, and I hug them. I tell them:
- ‘You are so small! I have the impression that you are my little brothers and sisters! I
have thirteen of them! And soon I’m going to have fourteen or fifteen!’
I don’t give a thought to the reporters who have come to wait for us… and thus, the
next morning:
- ‘Hello, Mama! You’re well? I’m already in New York!’
- ‘You haven’t felt queasy?’
- ‘No. And you?’
- ‘Me neither! It’s going very well.’
- ‘You know, Mama, you’re a celebrity in America: they know that you’re expecting
your fourteenth! It’s already in all the papers!’
I might not see the country as a tourist, but I see that which the tourists do not. For
example, in Dallas… where we are twenty-four hours later for the famous ‘Grande
Quinzaine Française’, organised by Stanley Marcus, the owner of a chain of department
stores. His slogan runs: ‘Here you can find anything you need, from a sewing needle to a
Boeing!’ And the most amazing thing is that it’s true! But I get a shock when we are taken
to see this M. Marcus: it's Victor Hugo in the flesh. He looks exactly like the old man with
a white moustache whose picture is in my dictionary!
Even more shocking is the fact that he’s hired a whole troupe of cowboys, just like the
ones in the films, hats, lassos, revolvers, horses and all, to greet and escort us… it seems
that there are fifty thousand cowboys here, come from all four corners of Texas for this
‘Quinzaine’.
We are all lodged in the Sheraton Hotel, in which ballroom the gala party will be held.
There is no need to leave the hotel, everything is inside: shops, souvenirs… and if Maurice
Chevalier’s name isn’t on M. Marcus’s programme, because he is otherwise engaged, Lily
Pons, a nation-wide celebrity, will be present in the room.
- ‘She was discovered by America at nineteen years of age, like you,’ François
Reichenbach tells me, ‘and now, a city in the United States bears her name!’
Is it possible? She is of course staying in the same hotel.
- ‘You are the newest and the youngest here,’ says Johnny. ‘It’s up to you to greet
her…’
I ask for her on the phone:
- ‘Can I please speak to Mme Lily Pons?’ (It’s she!)… ‘Madame, it’s Mireille Mathieu
on the line… I apologise, Madame, for not calling you earlier…’ (Aunt Irène, Johnny,
Nicole, the musicians are all watching my lips. Let us hope I don’t stammer!) ‘I thank you
with all my heart!’ (She’s going to come listen to me this evening!) ‘I am very much afraid
to sing before such a great diva of song...'’
- ‘…as you!’ Whispers Johnny.
- ‘As you. Thank you, Madame!’ (She says she wants to meet my manager…) ‘Very
well, Madame. Until tonight…’ (I guffaw). ‘Yes, Madame!’
I hang up and Johnny demands what made me laugh so crazily?
- ‘She told me that she’d be at her table… ‘at 10 precisely, like a cop!’ She said ‘like a
cop!’, with an American accent!’ (I later saw Lily at her property in Cannes, a city she
adored...).
Nicole has gone to do the shopping and I, as is my habit in the hours preceding a
performance, rest quietly in my rose dressing gown. Popaul makes me do some warm-up
exercises, and then leaves. I know that this evening, there will be present in the room the
governor-general of Texas, our ambassador in Washington - M. Charles Lucet, and his wife
– as well as two hundred prominent figures in finance, politics, cinema, theatre…
François, imperturbably, continues to film me. Moreover, he hasn’t stopped for a
moment. From time to time he’ll stretch out on his stomach on the ground, but he’ll always
continue filming. I say to myself: he must sleep with his camera! And it’s practically true.
He is always in need of sleep, because at night he goes in search of unusual images in racy
districts, and once they looked for him all over the New York airport, thinking that he was
going to miss the plane, when one of his assistants found him in a corner, curled up on the
floor like an immigrant, his camera propping up his head, serving at once as a pillow and a
teddy bear!
- ‘François, if it not annoy you…’
- ‘If it WON’T annoy you…’ (He has taken it into his head that he must help Johnny rid
me of my habit of ignoring the negative construction. I know: it would be better if I spoke
good French abroad. But it irritates me, the negative!)
- ‘If it WON’T annoy you, could you please stop filming? I’m going to put on my old
dressing-gown and Johnny will be furious if you film me wearing it. He DOESN’T know
that I brought it with me…’
I take it out from the bottom of my suitcase. François examines this shapeless piece of
material, so often washed and darned.
- ‘What is it? Your lucky talisman?’
- ‘Perhaps. I DON’T know. I feel good in it. It gives me strength, do you understand?’
He understands. But he sighs:
- ‘Ah! What a shame… it would make such a great image… you, young and fresh,
wearing this old thing. Are you really sure you don’t want to be filmed?’
- ‘Yes.’
And, in response to the surprised and frustrated look in his eye:
- ‘Ah! I do have the right to a private life, don’t I?’
We laugh.
- ‘Will I be in your way if I stay here?’
- ‘No.’
We each return to our armchairs. I close my eyes, he keeps his open, on watch. This is
what friendship is.
The gala is a success. When I come onstage, the first person I see in the front row is…
Lily Pons. She makes a discreet gesture of greeting… and I feel at once that my notes have
wings… M. Marcus is enchanted. It’s impossible to communicate how delighted he is; and
he sticks to his idea: to make me sing in the opera at Dallas. He tells me that I can ask
anything of him, I can take anything I want from his shops tomorrow! But François has a
better idea: couldn’t we go to Huntsville to see the convicts’ rodeo? M. Marcus will agree
with pleasure, he will place his private plane at our disposal… but this isn’t to stop me from
raiding his shops if I want to!
François is very excited: I am going to see a unique spectacle, which doesn’t take place
every year, only in those in which there is a fifth Sunday in September. So, today, in
Huntsville, which is like an enormous penitentiary, there is a celebration reminiscent of the
ones they dream up in Texas: a grandiose rodeo… what interests me the most, however, is
going into a shop and making for the hat section! I try on all of them… the tiny cap, the
giant hood…
- ‘Oh! Johnny, this is so cute! This one here… but no. On my head, this don’t look good
at all!’
- ‘DOESN’T look good. Mimi, you must check yourself! We won’t have M. Marcus’s
private plane on the flight back to Paris. You’ve already chosen plenty of things for which
we shall have to pay excess baggage tax!’
- ‘But it’s for my little sisters!’
- ‘You only have six of them! Not forty-two!’
François distracts me very easily from these frivolities because, knowing Dallas like the
back of his hand, he wants to take me to see a Black church which is quite as good as the
one in Harlem. And naturally, he films it all… here also, the most moving thing isn’t the
church, it’s the looks of the people present. When we arrive, the choir is rehearsing… I mix
with the choristers, humming along without opening my mouth. And then I begin one of
my songs, which they don’t know:

Quand tu voudras
Notre bonheur viendra de toi
Sur le chemin de l’espérance…

And, in their turn, with an inner musical sense, they accompany me without opening
their mouths.
Singing with a choir is perhaps what I like most of all. Then you don’t just have one
voice, but many. And when I sing of peace and love, I feel that my mission on this earth –
if I have a mission at all – is to sing songs like that. At such times I am very far indeed from
the little comedian Chevalier guessed in me. Perhaps there are two personalities living in
me? And these two Mireilles will do battle with one another?
- ‘Johnny… one day, I would like… you’re going to laugh… I would like to record a
disc with the Little Singers of the Wooden Cross.’
- ‘I’m not laughing. It’s a great idea.’
- ‘It don’t seem silly to you?’
- ‘It DOESN’T seem silly to me. You can do it once you can speak good French!’

Popaul, Francis, François, Johnny and I. The others have remained in Dallas.
Huntsville. A smiling Hell. A Hell because one cannot forget that one is in a great
penitentiary. Security guards are everywhere, machine guns in hand.
The director of the prison, a giant, receives us for breakfast. He measures close to two
metres tall; he is booted, with a hat on his head, and is slumped on his sofa. He offers an
immense green cigar to Johnny, and by his eyes it is clear that it is unsmokeable. We are
served by prisoners with shaved heads. I smile at them as though they were my petite maid
from the rue de Chézy. They smile back at me.
- ‘They seem very nice people,’ I whisper to François.
- ‘Very. The big one slaughtered his family of five people, and the small one cut them
up into pieces…’
- ‘Stop it!’
He’s joking. Extremely badly. It will become clear to me...
The penitentiary is a small city with numerous streets and an immense stadium. That’s
where the celebrated rodeo will take place. In the meantime, a bazaar is set up for the
amusement of the curious and the friends and family of the prisoners. Here they sell
mirrors, skirts, souvenirs, some of them made by the prisoners themselves.
A Black man in a boater hat, a striped shirt and a vest, bangs deafeningly away on the
piano, looking like an acrobat: he has a leg on the stool, the other up in the air, and in this
position, plays an old jazz tune.
- ‘He is a prisoner on parole, this one…’ François tells me.
- ‘It would have made a good number for Coquatrix!’ Says Johnny.
A little bit further away, another Black is playing the castanets. He is magnificent.
François wants to film him, and so asks:
- ‘Are you free?’
That beats everything, posing a question like that to a man who has been sentenced to
forty years in jail!
As guests of honour, we are taken to reserved places, near a small podium. About a
dozen metres above us there is a cage with people in it…
- ‘What’s that?’
- ‘The orchestra.’
- ‘Are they really in a cage?’
- ‘Yes. Because they’re all condemned to death. Look: they have no lack of humour;
they call themselves ‘The Notables’!’
I look at the notice. It’s the same word as in French, so I can pick it out. There are
mainly Blacks, several Whites, and one especially draws my attention, with a very fine face
behind his round glasses. What can he have done?
- ‘He shot people,’ François tells me.
I feel sweat at the roots of my hair, under my red hat. I put on my sunglasses, not to
seem like a star, but because the idea of death gives me pain. I don’t feel very well. I say
it’s because of the heat… the orchestra begins to play a ragtime air.
- ‘But François, they are remarkable!’
- ‘They are.’
They follow on with a poignant blues song.
- ‘Listen to the sax player, Mireille…’
It’s enough to make you cry. All his soul goes into his instrument. He’s asking for
pardon! I’m certain that he’s asking for pardon.
- ‘They don’t pardon prisoners in Huntsville… Yet today, some of them will have a
small chance. If at the rodeo, they show themselves to be the most courageous, the most
audacious, the best, they may have their long imprisonment shortened by several years. But
for those in the cage… it’s over.’
It’s intolerable… the clarinet responds to the sax, heart-rendingly.
- ‘But they are such artists, François… one cannot shoot an artist!’
- ‘One shouldn’t; but the pain of death is inevitable for a murderer here, and not all of
those musicians are angels.’
They are applauded; they sit down after taking bows as though they were on stage,
watched behind the grille by guards with machine guns. François says that one day he’ll
make a film about the fors and againsts of capital punishment.
- ‘I’ll return to Texas. Because it’s at once a western and a sci-fi, the past and the future.
In Huntsville it’s the penitentiary and, next door in Houston, the astronauts’ academy: the
contradiction of liberty and humanity’s greatest escape… extraordinary, isn’t it?’
This is the moment Johnny chooses to say:
- ‘Mireille, you’re going to sing now…’
- ‘Where?’
- ‘Here.’
- ‘In the stadium! It’s not possible. I feel rather strange and unwell…’
- ‘I know you: you feel better when you sing. The director has asked you to do it. We’re
going to borrow an accordion for Francis and Popaul’.
Francis Lai has a terrorised look about him: the one time he went for a walk without his
instrument, as a tourist!… François says that it will be sublime (he of course never forgets
his camera!), and that I must sing for these poor people. The American national anthem
interrupts us, and fifty thousand people all rise as one. The prisoners also stand. The end of
the anthem, and everyone sits back down, as though to see something completely
ordinary…
In satin sky-blue shirts, wearing their legendary hats, the riders gallop two by two onto
the arena, to the sound of wild applause. Then come the acrobatics… the riders stand up on
their horses’ backs, slip under their bellies at full gallop… their costumes are the most
fantastic things there; there are clowns, a Superman, a Batman… they are all convicts who
are risking breaking their necks, but what have they to lose?
One accordion, belonging to a prisoner, has been procured for Francis and Popaul. We
ascend the podium. I’ve taken off my sunglasses… a speaker presents me, I hear:
- ‘Maé-reye Ma-ti-ou!’ And we’re off, Popaul and Francis playing the waltz with four
arms!

Quand le cafard tourne en rond dans ma tête


Viens dans ma ville, viens dans ma rue
Quand les amis, les amours font la tête
Y a du ciel bleu qui t’attend dans la rue
Un bouquet de soleil par-dessus
Et ça donne un air de fête…

There certainly aren’t many people there who understand the words, but everyone is
suddenly very quiet… and, at the end, there is an explosion of cheers and whistles… from
fifty thousand people!
Francis is still green.
- ‘I’ve never been so afraid in my life…’ he says to me.
I am much more scared by the rodeo. Wild horses throw people violently to the ground.
When one of the riders is slow to rise, his friends carry him away as quickly as possible.
The infirmary must be full… if, however, a rider manages to stay on the bucking beast, the
audience screams in triumph. I replace my sunglasses on my face. They permit me to close
my eyes.
- ‘This isn’t a country of weaklings,’ François tells me on the plane back. ‘The pioneers
who established this country weren’t weaklings either. And that wasn’t so long ago. Force
and violence spurt out of here like the petroleum.’
He is passionate and inexhaustible on the subject of his ‘Unusual America’ (the title of
his first great film, released in 1960). He recounts to me how his friends asked him how he
managed to gain entry to the prisons, and film from a plane carrier:
- ‘I kept under my coat a picture of Bardot not wearing a coat!’
He assures me that the average street American only knows of three French celebrities:
Chevalier, Bardot and the General de Gaulle.
- ‘And also Charles Boyer, and Lily Pons, and Claudette Colbert, and Louis Jourdan?’
Completes Johnny.
- ‘Yes! But they take them for Americans.’
- ‘Well, that’s not something you risk happening to you!’ Johnny says to me when we
are all back at the bungalows of the Beverly Hills Hotel.
He’s not very happy. Here’s why. Our arrival in Los Angeles had been like those you
see in the movies. Joe Pasternak, with whom we had become friends, had mobilised a
whole army of journalists and photographers to receive ‘his’ discovery, which charmed
François:
- ‘Do you know that they’re hailing you as the new Deanna Durbin, or the French Judy
Garland?’
He films our broken dialogue:
- ‘How will you learn the language to be able to make a Pasternak film?’ Joe worries.
- ‘I will learn… lessons English… avec somebody: hello! Goodbye! I love you!’
- ‘Magnificent!’
But Johnny, between ourselves, isn’t as satisfied.
- ‘You really haven’t made any progress since last time!’
- ‘It’s only been five months, Johnny.’
- ‘In five months anyone taking such intense lessons as you will have managed to sort
themselves out! I don’t understand it: you have a good ear. You remember any air without
knowing a note of music. But the words!’
- ‘I know. It not the same…’
- ‘IT’S not the same!’
- ‘It’s not the same.’
I feel his exasperation. I explain it to Aunt Irène in the evening:
- ‘You understand, Auntie, in French the words create images for me. I retain them and I
love them. It’s really true that I like words; some of them are very pretty. It’s as though
they had faces. But in English, I see nothing at all. These W’s everywhere, these GHT,
these TH…’
She tells me not to work myself up about it. That it will be fine.
- ‘But it’s Johnny who’s getting worked up about it!’
For Joe Pasternak, my ignorance of English doesn’t seem all that important. He has put
aside his idea of a remake of ‘A Star is Born’ and the beauty contest series. He has an idea,
he says, which is even more fantastic. In fact, he has two! And if Johnny agrees, he’ll draw
up the contracts at once. The first one is immediate. It’s a western with John Wayne…
‘Guitar City’. The story of a boarder at a Swiss school, who is going to rejoin her father in
Mexico, during the era of pioneers… a costume role! I am enthusiastic about the idea. The
second project will take more time: a musical comedy about the life of Coco Chanel.
- ‘What did you say, Johnny?’
- ‘That’s we’ll talk about it some more. I’ve signed your contract for the show with
Danny Kaye. So we’ll return in December.’
- ‘And me too!’ Says François. ‘I don’t want to miss this!’
In the meantime, I’m going to sing at the Daisy Club, which will make a change from
Huntsville. Here there are only six hundred members, who all pay a very high membership
rate and who are all, more or less, friends of Pasternak and belong to the world of cinema or
vaudeville. His famous ‘chicks’ are therefore in the room: Frank Sinatra, for whom the
Daisy Club is a sort of headquarters, Sammy Davis Junior, Dean Martin… the cabaret is
magnificent, covered in Saint-Gobain mirrors. Frédéric Loew, the grandson of Adolf
Zukor, the pioneer of Hollywood, is the presenter. I am less afraid than I was before the
convicts. Here they are professional performers, they know this art.
- ‘Work the hardest you’ve ever worked!’ Johnny says to me before rejoining his wife in
the auditorium.
When I hear ‘encore!’, I know that I gave it all I have! But what amazes me most is that
in such a Hollywoodian place, I hear people whistling through their fingers… exactly like
in Huntsville!
The next day, Johnny is in an excellent humour. A very famous reporter, Mike
Connolly, has written an article, printed, it is said, in four hundred newspapers around the
country…
‘Now I know why Danny Kaye and Andy Williams have signed with this French
firestorm, whose initials are the same as those of Marilyn Monroe. I also understand why
she is paid an extremely high fee, though only a year ago she was earning seven dollars
glueing envelopes in a factory in her province. Mireille Mathieu, also, is a phenomenon.’
Next morning, Pierre Grelot, Pasternak’s secretary, tells us that Joe wants to show me
privately the film ‘My Fair Lady’. Johnny is a little surprised: it is over ten years old.
- ‘Yes, but… you’re going to meet the author, not only of the film script, but also of the
musical, Jay Lerner, and Joe prefers Mireille to have seen his work.’
Johnny knows it by heart, François too, naturally. Auntie and I are the only ones who
are completely ignorant. So here we are in the office on Pelagio Road. Joe takes us to the
viewing room. It’s funny, seeing a film without an audience around you: you almost don’t
dare laugh! The bother, of course, is that it will be in English. Pierre, very kindly,
undertakes the chore of explaining the plot to the two poor stupid Frenchwomen. I adore it.
Audrey Hepburn is very pretty… and she sings so well!
- ‘It’s not her singing! She was dubbed. Onstage Julie Andrews played the role, but
when it came to filming it, it was thought that she wouldn’t make a film-star.’
My heart freezes. It seems diabolical to me. So, it is the story of Mario Lanza, which
Joe told us on our last voyage, repeating itself: someone’s voice being attributed to
someone else’s body. But then… if I don’t act well… what would stop them giving ‘my’
voice to another actress? Pierre protests. My case is very different: Joe is playing the card
of a new singer. There is no question of any manipulation! He reassures me. I have both the
appearance and the voice necessary. I am ‘his’ find, as Deanna Durbin was in her time.
- ‘And who did she become?’
- ‘No one. She’s married. She lives in France.’
‘No one’… It sends shivers down my spine. She lives under the name of her husband,
thinks Pierre, doubtlessly happy, but it’s all over with regard to her career.
- ‘But she is able not to sing any more?’
- ‘Without a doubt.’
I think that I never could… I must sing. Perhaps Deanna still sings incognito, in a
parish church choir?
I am again distracted by the story of ‘My Fair Lady’, which enchants me:
- ‘But it’s me,’ I say, ‘it’s absolutely me! It’s me and Johnny! Johnny is obliged to teach
me everything, even to articulate, like Eliza! I would love to play this role. I wouldn’t have
to do anything, just walk into it, especially since I love costumes and hats! It’s really me!’
Pierre calms me. Of course. If it amuses me, I can play it one day, since it is continually
refilmed, here or there. But he believes that it’s not this proposition Jay Lerner is going to
put to me: he wishes me to play Gigi in a musical on Broadway.
Gigi? I don’t dare tell him that I don’t know who he means.
In the evening, Johnny speaks with me about it.
- ‘You can play Gigi, of course. It’s a role made for you, but…’
He explains:
- ‘But I’ve called M. Lerner. I told him that you don’t know a word of English. That to
perform on Broadway, you must have several more years of experience… to possess the
language fully. In cinema, things are different and you could try your strength if you work
hard… they can easily do retakes. And again… I am not sure you can do it. In theatre, it’s
too obvious: you don’t know the ways of the stage, you don’t have a comedian’s training,
and you don’t know the language. There are too many factors against the idea!’
I bow my head.
However, in Hollywood they say the same thing about ideas as they say about girls in
our parts: lose one, and you will find ten more… there is a fantastic American film which
everyone is talking about, it’s called ‘Does Paris speak?’, and François is very
knowledgeable when the conversation comes around to it. Based on the book by Lapierre
and Collins, it tells of the 1944 liberation of Paris.
The Americans had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in it, mainly because the
director, Réné Clément, is known for his perfectionism and didn’t want to leave out or
neglect anything. François has a great admiration for the man, who helped him when he
was setting out:
- ‘He’s an unequalled technician,’ he says, ‘and it was he who gave me my first lesson in
editing.’
When the producers had decided to do ‘a film about the film’, a documentary about this
gigantic shoot, it was naturally François who was charged with it. At a dinner given by
Pasternak, he told us how, while Malraux had decided to show Paris in white colours,
Clément had at once hastened to darken it! He had even tried to remove the TV antennas
bristling on the rooftops everywhere!
- ‘I had great fun,’ he said, ‘when we filmed the German tanks in the place de la
Concorde, in front of the flabbergasted tourists, who had no idea what was going on!'
François has many anecdotes to recount; for example, how Yves Montand, while
filming a tragic scene in which he dies as his tank explodes, stopped suddenly and declared:
‘I can’t shoot any more today, I’ve hurt my finger!’
The cast is a mix of French and American actors, with Belmondo, Delon, Charles Boyer,
Leslie Caron, Simone Signoret and Claude Dauphin, but also with Kirk Douglas, Glen
Ford, Orson Wells… to the music of Maurice Jarre. This last has just finished doing the
soundtrack, and is present at the dinner. It’s here that the idea comes to him: why don’t I
record two of the film’s songs?
After he wrote the music for ‘The Longest Day’, Jarre became a Hollywood star. And he
didn’t stop there. He has done ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ’The Train’, ‘The Possessed’, ‘The
Professionals’… they say that he has money pouring in, but I only know that I find him as
nice and funny as our Popaul. The film comes out in Paris on October the 24th. I panic. It’s
next week! He reassures me: the song he wants me to sing is a very simple waltz. He plays
it to me:

Que l’on touche à la liberté


Et Paris se met en colère
Et Paris commence à gronder
Et le lendemain c’est la guerre…

What a lovely song. He tells me that he’s returning to Paris at the same time as us and
that he’ll teach it to me on the plane…
And in truth, the moment he straps himself into the seat next to me, he begins to hum ‘Et
Paris se met en colère’. But I am very tired. All these extraordinary events I have witnessed
are whirling around it my head; the images flow one into another: the billionaire who stares
while Chevalier presents me as his young fiancée, looking like an elderly marchioness,
mouth open, fiddling with her pearl necklace; M. Marcus as he invites me to sing at the
opera in Dallas; the caged black sax player in Huntsville; Joe leading me by the hand along
the corridors of the MGM studios and presenting me to all those we meet as ‘my little
star…’, Lily Pons smiling at me as I come onstage at the Sheraton, a little girl in a royal
blue velvet dress, with a great bow in her hair, shyly presenting me with a bouquet of
flowers, the face of Francis Lai turning green and the green cigarette of the director of the
prison… so many images, faces, voices sounding in my ear… no, really, I can’t sing. I am
too tired…
But here, right in the plane, Francis takes up his accordion and plays ‘Paris en colère’,
Maurice Jarre beats out the tempo; one by one, our friends take up the chorus, the
passengers join in… which proves that the song is a good one, that it is easily recalled.
How can I resist? An American with a great bass voice and a Southern accent dominates
the choir, making the stewardesses smile…
- ‘Come on, Mimi!’
Jarre spoon-feeds me each couplet… the plane itself has become nothing but a waltz.
When we arrive in Orly, I know it off by heart.
There is nothing else to do but record it the next day…

A workaholic
The disc has to be done in record time. It’s horrible, this race against the clock;
especially when behind the glass of the cutting cabin sits the formidable uncle Jo, a
perfectionist who doesn’t let me get away with even the tiniest mistake. Luckily, there is
nothing like learning a song than singing it in a choir. The session on board the Air France
Boeing had been an excellent rehearsal. Moreover, it’s not one song we’re recording, but
two, the second on what I always call the ‘reverse’ of a single, and which Johnny always
corrects, in professional terms, to ‘side B’. Must the passengers of the New York – Paris
flight know it better than I? It is even more lovely than ‘Paris en colère’, although the
tempo is different:

Soldats sans armes, soldats sans visage


Ils vivrent dans l’ombre
Sans dire leur nom
Ils se battaient sans pitié, sans merci
Sans fusils
Ils se battaient, ils se battaient, ils se battaient…

Because I don’t have time to go to Avignon, I sing it over the phone. I feel how
emotional Papa is on the other end:
- ‘My baby… my baby… you’ll make more than one of them cry…!’
The phone changes hands.
- ‘Hello! Mama!… he didn’t tell me whether he liked it?’
- ‘You know how your father gets when this war is spoken of…’ (and, in a loud voice),
‘do excuse him, he needs to blow his nose, he has a cold!’
The premiere of ‘Does Paris speak?’ is one of those events which only Georges
Cravenne and Paris are able to hold. It’s my first gala as a spectator, and I’m wearing my
first premiere dress, long and white, a long blue velvet cloak used to cover it (I’m attached
to it, the colour of the dragonflies of my childhood…). Maurice Jarre explains to me that
Cravenne has used the same formula which sealed the success of ‘The Longest Day’: the
showing of the film in the hall of the Palais de Chaillot, followed by supper in the salon,
where one whole wall is in fact a window with a view on the Eiffel Tower. On the first
storey of the Tower they had hung a great three-colour banner. Against the white part of it
stood out a small silhouette: that of Piaf, whose voice, transmitted over the entire
esplanade, penetrated to the very heart of the guests in the Palais. I imagine her, the
miniature woman with a giant’s voice…
- ‘How lucky, Maurice, to have seen it!’
But this evening, everything is just as exceptional. I shed all the tears I possess during
the film…
- ‘My God, Mireille! Your make-up’s all gone! And it’s swarming with photographers!’
Nicole Stark takes me to touch up, before making our way to the table of Robert
Laffont, editor of the book by Lapierre and Collins (And I could never have imagined that
he would one day become the editor of mine!), in the dining hall. We had barely sat down
when a silhouette appears opposite: that of Yves Montand.
His moving voice makes me listen, to one of the most beautiful songs I know. ‘Le chant
des partisans’:
Ami, entends-tu le vol noir des corbeaux sur nos plaines?
Ami, entends-tu les cris sourds du pays qu’on enchaîne?

The grand finale of the evening is a firework display. Aunt Irène is filled with wonder.
And then come the smiles, the embracing, the ‘how lovely you look!’, the compliments,
the congratulations…
- ‘You have a dream life,’ Auntie says to me. ‘Do you know it?’
Yes, of course. And yet, something is missing, a very small thing which pinches my
heart: I haven’t sung this evening.
- ‘Hello, Mimi? It’s Nadine. M. Stark has received the English version of ‘Mon credo’.
You can come to collect it from the office…’
- ‘But how am I going to learn it if I don’t know any English?’
- ‘It’s written phonetically, you see. The way you need to pronounce it.’
Ah, good! Nadine is on Avenue de Wagram, between three ringing phones. She tells me
to look at the music on the desk. I walk up to it. Ma-eye cri-i-do. That must be it. It
interests me much less than a huge album lying nearby, entitled ‘Olympia, September 66’. I
open it randomly and come across a cutting from ‘Le Monde’:
‘To me, Mireille Mathieu is a voice – Piaf’s – and numbers: 19 years, 13 brothers and
sisters, 30 000 kilometres on tour, 14 hours of work per day, 1 million singles in 6 months,
7 kilos lost in 5 weeks, 3 fainting fits in 8 days, blood pressure 6.5, which is extremely low.
Those who are better informed than I find a link between such a great success and such
poor health. They speak of overwork, of the exploitation of a new idol by those surrounding
her. Having seen her onstage, I fear, alas, that she is only experiencing the first of troubles
yet to come. This pretty doll with porcelain cheeks who says ‘I love you’ has yet much to
learn…’
Ah yes! I remember that Johnny spoke to me of a ‘porcelain doll’. And patati and patata,
as we used to say in school when we were bored with the lesson.
‘…However much you splash about the water in a bath, you will never be able to imitate
waves, because they come from the deep, not from the surface. And all the lessons in
singing, in music theory, in diction, in bearing, cannot replace the lessons of life. Mireille
Mathieu can do nothing about it, of course. Her manager ought to have thought about
accustoming her to happiness or to grief. It will permit her, perhaps, to catch up, one day, to
the miniature and giant shadow after which she runs…’
Very well, so little Mimi – there are moments when, more and more frequently, I refer
to myself in the third person – isn’t liked by ‘Le Monde’ (‘The World’). But the world
without a capital letter likes her very well. America loves her, does it not… perhaps it’s
time to learn Ma-eye cri-i-do… I take up the sheet once more when I notice, in the
following cutting, and still in ‘Le Monde’, a ‘Letter from Johnny Stark’ in big capitals, and
then in smaller case: ‘the truth according to him’.
Let us see what uncle Jo could have replied to them:
‘Edith Piaf is unique and irreplaceable. A comparison with a young girl who only has
eight months of training doesn’t seem to me very realistic. I spend my time shouting from
the rooftops that Mireille Mathieu is a débutante… I want to ask what exactly it is you
mean by advising me to teach Mireille Mathieu about grief? Can it be that you’re seriously
thinking of making this child live through the pathetic hell which was the sad fate of Edith
Piaf? Come now, it cannot be anything but a misunderstanding.
‘However it is, Mireille Mathieu will never walk on the shards of Madame Piaf, as she
has neither the aspiration to nor the temperament for it. Her side must be taken in this.
Mireille Mathieu will be Mireille Mathieu. The fruit is still green, I agree with you on that
the more readily because I do nothing but say it and repeat it, but it’s no one’s fault if the
public has taken to her a little bit before the full maturity of her talent.
‘… The people like Mireille Mathieu perhaps even more for what she will give them
than for what she is giving them now, with the deep subtle love of the heart which knows
no reason.’
Bravo! He is fearsome my uncle Jo. Without him, among all these people, the poor
Mimi would have died before she could have been born. Ah! There is another little
paragraph, the response to the response: it never ends:
‘… it is understandable that Johnny Stark, loyal to the responsibility he has undertaken,
should calmly deny any resemblance between Mireille Mathieu and Edith Piaf. Alas!
Despite his spirited and sharp response, the fact remains that this resemblance was
immediately perceived and questioned by all amateur music-lovers.’
I am in a high temper. If only ‘Le Monde’ had asked his opinion of Maurice Chevalier.
His is a professional opinion, and they should have sought it, rather than that of amateurs. I
slam the album shut. I will be better received in America.
Uncle Jo finds me in the middle of calmly committing Ma-eye cri-i-do to memory. I hug
him so vigorously that he looks surprised:
- ‘What’s up with you?’
- ‘Nothing. I love you very much. Without you I wouldn’t be a nobody. That could
almost be put into a song!’
- ‘Yes, but I’d prefer you to say: I WOULD be nobody.’
- ‘But that’s a syllable too few.’
That’s when I notice that he has been followed by a young man. He is presented to me:
- ‘Gérard Majax. He’s going on tour with you.’
He’s very nice. I can see it at once.
- ‘Do you sing?’
- ‘No. I’m a manipulator.’
- ‘You work with mikes, with lighting apparatus?’
- ‘Not so much with the machines as with the effects…’
- ‘He’s a magician,’ says Johnny.
- ‘A magician!’ (I am dazzled in advance). ‘So you pull little white rabbits out of hats?’
- ‘If the event demands it… I can. But it would be rather risky on this pretty carpet. It
would be better for me to help Johnny make ends meet… particularly since you’re so
providential, look!’
He brushes his hand against my ear and hop! he pulls a coin from behind it, hop! another
from under my arm, from the hem of my skirt, from my hair… I am completely astonished.
He places the coins on the table: they are genuine.
- ‘But… where did you get all this money from?’
Johnny is doubled over with laughter: he adores Majax. It won’t be long before I follow
his example… ah! it will be merry, this tour with him! I forget to think of America. But
Johnny doesn’t:
- ‘Oh! Gérard… you speak English very well, don’t you… you can help us, then. I’m
not going to hire a tutor for Mademoiselle Mathieu for the duration of the tour. But I want
to record ‘Mon credo’ in New York the following month. Could you work with her at the
language during your spare hours?’
I study my new teacher. Black hair, curling slightly, mischievous eyes, and his hands…
ah! his hands!
- ‘I have them from my mother,’ he says. ‘She’s a pianist.’
- ‘And your father?
- ‘A tailor.’
That’s what it is: The agility of the needle and the swiftness of the keyboard. Skill with
scissors, too: he can do extraordinary things, cutting a bit of paper. Also, he always carries
a deck of cards with him in his pockets.
- ‘I know two hundred ways of cheating at cards!’ He says.
- ‘I won’t never play with you!’
- ‘I WILL never play,’ Johnny corrects me, and adds:
- ‘You see, Gérard, you can also give her lessons in French!’
When he is gone, Johnny asks me how I liked him:
- ‘Tremendously! But it’ll bore him, having to give me lessons…’
- ‘Not at all. He was going to become a primary school teacher.’
- ‘How did he become a magician?’
- ‘By showing tricks to his friends at school.’
- ‘Really? A bit like me, all in all.’
- ‘What do you mean, like you?’
- ‘Well, it was by singing to my girlfriends that.. voila!’
- ‘The big difference between you is that he has finished an educational course and has a
degree in psychology, and he always completes his sentences, so you can understand what
he’s saying!’
Majax becomes the joy of the entire tour. Standing in the wings, I don’t let up watching
him do his routine, hoping to catch him out. But, the very moment when I think I’m going
to get it at last… pfffft! the trick is successfully completed and he bows to the audience.
What I like most of all is when, after the performance, he shows us all his tricks in the
restaurant, in front of our noses. And still we can’t understand how he does it… it doesn’t
matter what it is: my red stick, Auntie’s earring, the handkerchief of the young choirboy,
Danièle Licari’s (who has a very lovely voice: it was she who dubbed Catherine Deneuve
in ‘Les Parapluies de Cherbourg’, or ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’) or that of her friend,
Jackie Castan. He makes our Piccolo howl with laughter… My Popaul and Francis aren’t
unfortunately, with us. I say unfortunately because I don’t much like changing companions,
but they weren’t free, and they were replaced by Armand Motta and five musicians. This
winter tour is as merry as though it were spring outside. We sing in a choir with two first-
class singers, Michel Orso and Guy Bontempelli, and the presenter Michel Gaillard; we
mess around with the Trotter brothers, who are American puppeteers. They are also capable
of being my teachers, but… Majax is intrigued by this block I seem to have when trying to
speak English.
- ‘What’s happening to you? You aren’t scared with us?’
- ‘No.’
- ‘Well? What’s stopping you?’
- ‘I don’t know…’
Apart from these laborious lessons, we have good fun… Bordeaux, Toulouse,
Montpellier, Marseilles… Ah! Marseilles! It’s almost Avignon! The entire family has come
down here, taking up three rows for them and some friends. It will be a great night!
- ‘Well! Johnny, won’t it be great tonight? You can see that all the Mathieus are in the
hall!’
His response is very puzzling.
- ‘Yes, but does that mean that you don’t try your hardest when the Mathieus aren’t
here? You would do better to think a little less about your family and a little more of the
public. And your English?’
I employ evasive action.
- ‘She has problems,’ says Majax.
- ‘With pronunciation?’
- ‘As well, but especially with the text.’
He tries to explain it psychologically:
- ‘I wonder if, subconsciously, English doesn’t represent to her a barrier, even a
separation from her family…’
Between cities, there are occasional returns to Paris for me. Sometimes it’s for a show
with Sacha Distel on which we sing ‘Un homme, une femme’ in a duet; once it’s for a
meeting with Maurice Chevalier, on which we agreed back in New York: I’m going to help
him distribute sweets to the old people of his ‘village’, Ménilmontant. The day has arrived.
I’ve taken an overnight train after the performance in Lyons… and here I am in the Rue des
Pyrénées, playing the angelic assistant of Father Christmas – the marvellous Maurice, not
long returned from America, where he didn’t stop giving recitals for a moment… he tells
me that on the plane back home, he travelled with Sagan, Chazot, Aznavour and his ‘pretty
Swede’:
- ‘He is so in love that he didn’t notice me the slightest bit! The most friendly, which
surprised me, turned out to be Chazot; he seated himself next to me and paid me many
compliments, although he has the reputation of having a cruel wit. But he was so generous
that, upon me having remarked that he had a nice tie-pin, he gave it to me! I didn’t know
where to put my face.’
And as his secretary, François Vals, and Félix Paquet have brought more boxes of
chocolate and conserves, we continue to give them out.
- ‘The luck we have, Mireille, in being in this profession! We rub shoulders with the
greatest but also with the humblest… look at them.’
They are like wondering children, these two hundred poor aged, so fragile, so
deprived…
- ‘Never leave this profession, Mimi! I don’t agree with Garbo. If the public love you,
they won’t mind watching you grow older. She ought to have gone on to the end, with and
for her audience. It is better, more courageous, than submitting to the fear of losing one’s
crown…’
- ‘I promise you. I’ll never stop singing.’
And I rush with Auntie to make the train so that I can sing the same evening in Lyons.
Another short round trip is made for a private soiree, held by the ambassador Hervé
Alphand: present are Pierre Cardin, the Prime Minister Georges Pompidou and his wife
Claude, the writer Romain Gary and his very pretty and delightful spouse, Jean Seberg. She
fascinates me for a very good reason: she filmed ‘Jeanne d’Arc’. My favourite heroine! I
haven’t seen the film, but I can imagine it. During the course of the soiree, she only makes
a slight allusion to the hell that filming meant to her, when she was only nineteen years old.
‘It was hard, too hard… it has marked me for life…’ She doesn’t have eyes for anyone but
Romain Gary, and he for her. Therefore I don’t dare question her about ‘Jeanne d’Arc’; but
when she finds out that I must return to Hollywood, with film offers on the horizon, she
smiles slightly and says to me simply: ‘Good luck and much courage!…’
The tour will end just before three music showcase performances in Olympia, organised
by Elle and Europe 1. So I must sing my ten songs three times, among them ‘Géant’:

Un homme est venu dans le grand désert hurlant


Comme un grain de blé porté par le vent…

What gives me pleasure is that most of them are already so well settled in the ear of the
public that they applaud as soon as the introduction is played… even for ‘Paris en colère’,
the newest release.
On the night, Fernand Raynaud comes up to me to hug me and to say:
- ‘I admire you tremendously. Next to you, I’m just an apprentice!’
He is so kind and modest… at 7:10 p.m. I leave Olympia and I only just have enough
time to fly to the charity organised by Mme Claude Pompidou. I feel truly minuscule next
to her… but, after the dinner at the ambassador’s, her blue eyes had put me at my ease. She
says she doesn’t know how to thank me, as she knows that I’m taking the plane to
Marseilles in just a few hours. We fly off at 10:30 with François Reichenbach and his team.
He needs a few more shots of the panorama in Avignon to complete his film, ‘The
Fairytale of Mireille Mathieu’, scheduled for release at the end of the year. In other words,
in fourteen days… there’s even more: the day after tomorrow, François is accompanying us
to Los Angeles because he also wants to shoot the show with Danny Kaye, which will
occur on the nineteenth… we are living on the go. Auntie and Nadine are doing the
packing. This year’s-end trip to America is carried out in terrible haste. Barclay returns
with us, and Johnny brings not only Nicole but Vincence as well. And, in the middle of this
hubbub, I receive a letter from Johnny which dumps be right back on the ground. It is dated
the 15th of December 1966 (during the showcase performances). It is severe:

‘My dear Mireille,


‘I don’t want the occurrence of sending you a reproachful letter at the end of the year to
become a habit, but, nonetheless, it is necessary to reiterate what is in your interest.
‘You see, I’m not very satisfied with the way certain elements of your tour developed,
and it seems to me necessary to introduce at once the imperative corrections. The
competition will profit from the least of your faults, which, besides, is the logical way of
things.
‘First of all, you don’t seem to believe in what you sing anymore, your interpretation
lacks feeling dreadfully, and you’re no longer at all convincing. It’s very obvious, and a
serious problem.
‘Next, far from improving, your diction is going from bad to worse. Remember yourself
the trouble I had last week in getting you to pronounce the name of Charles Aznavour
correctly.
‘I must also say to you that you often sing out of tune and you must look over your stage
conduct. Finally, you are as fresh as a rose, but you put on so much make-up, so badly
(especially during the day), that you look like an old lady in front of the reporters.
‘It’s going to be necessary to start from scratch. You must recover yourself, and I’m
certain that you will make the necessary efforts to correct these shortcomings.
‘I don’t doubt for a second your enormous good will and intention, but it is my job to
point out to you how easy it is to stray from the difficult path to success.
‘Have courage, my little Mireille, and one day, when everything is perfect and you are
the greatest of them all, I will cease to scold and worry you like a sheep-dog.
‘I hug you tightly.

‘Johnny Stark.’

I am appalled. For several weeks I had hada strong feeling that Johnny wasn’t very
happy, but… Auntie, who read the letter before me, found me in tears.
- ‘Is it true that I sing out of tune, that I look like an old woman, that no one can
understand what I say, that I’m not longer convincing…?’
- ‘You know Johnny… he is a Southerner like us, he always exaggerates a little. But…
it’s true that you were not as good this time round, you gave the impression that you were
thinking of other things…’
It’s unjust. I often think of Grandmama, who died without seeing me again… how could
they say that I lack feeling, when my heart often overflows…
- ‘Perhaps,’ says Auntie. ‘But we don’t always manage to express that which we feel…
that is what I think he wanted to say… about the make-up, he wasn’t at all wrong either…
we tell you often that you put too much on. And it’s true that it ages a face. But you’re
stubborn… it’s also true that you always stumble over certain words…’
Thus, Auntie admits that uncle Jo is right.
- ‘After us, it is he who loves you the most. And when you love, you say the truth. You
don’t want him to lie to you, do you? You have heard many compliments lately.
Compliments aren’t always true.’
- ‘Neither are reproaches!’
- ‘You know well that they are… partly.’
- ‘But I have too many things to think of at the same time! How to behave at table, how
to walk, how to bow, speak correct French when I don’t know any longer which is correct
and which isn’t, articulate properly, train my voice, learn English, learn new songs, stay in
tune, not laugh with my mouth wide open, not eat too much, learn to dance, not forget to
breathe, sleep a lot when it’s impossible to fall asleep because you’re going over all this
stuff in your head, and just when you have a headache, you must start again and again…!
It’s torture!’
Auntie lets me storm and cry. And when I’m slightly calmer:
- ‘You can always return to the factory…’
- ‘It went bankrupt!’
- ‘You can find another. In France, there are more factories than Olympias. Think about
this on the plane.’
Of course, there is no need. I know, deep, deep down inside myself, that I will never
abandon my calling.

The crisis
My life resembles the sky above Avignon. Never black for long, there are bright
intervals and the sun always returns… before the storm. Which also returns as soon as it
can, with renewed violence. But a great blow of mistral, just as violent, chases it off. And
everything begins again!
We are once more in Los Angeles. In a studio, with Danny Kaye. He has the perpetual
air of a little boy, in his short pants.
- ‘Do you know why my pants are too short?’ (Pierre Grelot translates for me). ‘Because
then there is always someone who will ask: ‘But why do you wear such short pants?’ And
that makes human relations much easier!’
He also has trainers which have the peculiar faculty of staying on his feet without any
laces in them...
- ‘I have them made to measure with a little impression for each toe. Very important: the
foot is the health of the head!’
And he taps himself joyfully on the skull. I sing two songs, one of which must be a real
sketch with him. It’s a gentle love song, for which Jamblan wrote words on a scale which
rises and falls very peacefully.

DO: En écoutant mon cœur chanter


RÉ: Je vous retrouve à mes côtés
MI: Me serrant très fort pour danser
FA: Guettant la nuit pour m’embrasser
SO: Murmurant des folies tout bas
LA: Ne pensant qu’à rire aux éclats
SI: Ou me faisant fermer les yeux
DO: Avec un frisson merveilleux…
DO: Me pressant doucement les doigts
SI: Comprenant mes secrets émois
LA: Prenant l’air d’une enfant gâtée
SO: Quand vous voulez tout emporter
FA: Et soudain les yeux éperdus
MI: Me rendant mon bonheur perdu
RÉ: Tout redevient réalité
DO: En écoutant mon cœur chanter…

Johnny has given me the sign to begin: with Paul Mauriat at the piano, having obtained
permission to accompany me – a rarity, with the draconian music syndicates - I sing,
unperturbable, while watching Danny Kaye, who responds to me in English without
understanding a word of what I am saying to him… which ignorance is, of course, mutual.
The effect must be astonishing, judging by the frequent bursts of laughter coming from the
technicians. I don’t have to make much of an effort not to join them, since, in truth, I don’t
understand a single word of the jokes Danny is cracking! The important thing is not to
smile on seeing his grimaces…
- ‘You know, Mireille,’ Johnny said to me before the beginning of the rehearsal, ‘don’t
be afraid of playing the role of a girl who doesn’t understand anything.’
- ‘That’s easy, Johnny, I really don’t understand anything!’
- ‘Above all, don’t move, keep singing no matter what happens, in the same soft tempo,
and, most importantly, DO NOT LAUGH!’
- ‘Yes, Johnny.’
I like this song. It is different from all my other ones. It has a disarming simplicity. And,
I think, I am disarmed as well, faced by a Danny who begins by speaking to me softly, and
then gets excited, carried away, and perhaps finishes by insulting me… try puzzle it out!
- ‘Stop!’
The studio rings to the sound of applause and wild laughter, all the louder for having
been contained.
Danny is beside himself.
- ‘She is a revelation…!’
He is so enthusiastic that he invites us to dinner! In a state of euphoria, we arrive at his
house, situated in Beverly Hills, of course, as your house must be if you are a performer in
Hollywood. It is almost exactly like that of Joe Pasternak (who is with us, by the way). It’s
the same colonial style, a park surrounding a house with a swimming pool.
Danny’s house has a peculiarity not found in many others: it has two kitchens. One is an
immense American one, where it is a real pleasure to eat… and another, no less
enormous… is a Chinese one. Because Danny is a fan of gastronomy, himself a cook as
well, collector and inventor of recipes!
- ‘And yet,’ he says, ‘I eat very little… but I taste much! Which one would you like to
try?’
Naturally, we vote for the Chinese. And here we are dumbfounded, watching him create.
He has at his disposal two gigantic ovens and an old Chinese cook who, he says, is eighty-
three years old, which is quite possible since she has a small face like a baked apple, with
two cracks for eyes. And a third for her mouth! The Chinese lady is in fact his assistant: he
gives commands and she peels garlic, onions and I don’t know what other ingredients. He
tells us that, because of the Chinese colony in California, in this state there are the best
stores with the rarest ingredients, ‘like in Peking’!
We have finished rehearsal at about 8 o’clock, but we must have patience in waiting for
our dinner. It is already 10 p.m. and the Chinese lady is still peeling: though she does it at
an extraordinary speed, the moment she is done, Danny seizes what he needs from her, and
with a great variety of gestures which make us double up with laughter, prepares the
famous food of which it is said that, after (or before, according to the latitude) French
cuisine, it is the best. While he works, Danny tells us that he is friendly with the greatest
chefs of France. Johnny can easily support the conversation in this area. Food is also his
passion. Their friends are the same: Bocuse, Troisgros, Haeberlin, Oliver… so we see
Danny and uncle Jo exchange the ‘tricks’ borrowed from the stars of the oven.
- ‘I can receive you all year, and never serve you the same dish!’
His wife Sylvia lets him cook. She doesn’t bother about casseroles, her hand holds a pen
more often than a spoon: she writes his sketches for him. Among others, she is the author of
the one which made Samuel Goldwyn choke with laughter and sign Danny on the spot:
beginning with Tchaikovsky, he rattled off the names of fifty-six Russian composers in
thirty-six seconds!
To keep us occupied, he opens a bottle of champagne, pretending to be a clumsy waiter
and making us fear that at any moment he will drop the bottle…
Suddenly he says to me:
- ‘Mireille, you live in Avignon, don’t you? Would you like to call your parents?’
- ‘They don’t have a telephone… I usually call the drug store next door…’
This news appears to delight him. He adores drug stores!
- ‘But it’s too late. They must all be asleep at this hour.’
- ‘But no, come, what about the time difference!’
And there, on the other end of the line, is Croix-des-Oiseaux. I ask the shop assistant if
she would please go find my papa… we wait about seven or eight minutes, during which
Danny chats in pseudo-French with the poor shopkeeper. Finally:
- ‘Here we are, M. Mathieu!’
- ‘Hello, Papa? I’m with Danny Kaye!’
- ‘Who is that?’
I am slightly embarrassed in giving the explanation.
- ‘He is a very big cinema star, he’s very funny…’
- ‘Like Fernandel?’
- ‘No. Not really.’
- ‘Then ask him, do they know of Fernandel in America?’
This is translated. He responds that he knows a lot about him; he often goes to France,
he knows Fernandel and bouillabaisse, two things very French; another translation ensues.
- ‘And we drink to your health, Papa. How is Mama? It must be showing now.’ And I
add, for the benefit of M. Danny Kaye, ‘I’m awaiting a little brother!’
A translation and a new round of champagne for Mama’s health. Danny has inherited
the custom of emptying his glass at one go from his Russian ancestors, but I’m not used to
drinking at all. Johnny looks at me pointedly, which I don’t notice, and Auntie is too
dazzled to try and bring me to my senses. I feel so cosy in this kitchen… Danny says
abruptly:
- ‘Do you know Simone Signoret?’
- ‘Only her name…’
And at once he calls Simone Signoret, right now also in Hollywood, where she is
regarded extraordinarily highly. He asks her to come to dinner and assures us she’ll come.
And in the meantime, champagne!
- ‘Mireille, you know, tomorrow there is a show you need to be on… you need sleep. It’s
very important for you,’ Johnny says to me in a quiet voice.
- ‘Oh! Let’s stay a little while more… and besides, I’m hungry!’
When Simone Signoret arrives, it is 2 a.m. As soon as she’s there, the atmosphere
changes. She monopolises all the attention, being at once surly and enchanting. She speaks
American English admirably well, and it’s Danny’s turn to laugh and laugh… the Chinese
cook finally serves us an exquisitely prepared meal. I am certain that the Chinese don’t
drink champagne at dinner, but Danny continues opening bottles… we must toast to our
show, to Simone’s latest film (‘with this one, I am sure of not getting an Oscar!’), to
Pasternak’s next one, and Joe profits by taking this opportunity to speak of his production
with John Wayne, and… Mireille Mathieu.
- ‘So you want to make a career in America?’ She asks me.
- ‘…yes, Madame.’
She shakes her head.
- ‘I wish you much pleasure in it…’
And she begins to speak of the Vietnam War. This wipes the smiles off people’s faces,
especially that of Danny, who cannot forget the looks of the children he saw there… the
soiree, begun joyfully, ends, for me, in a kind of anguish, especially since, in the car,
Johnny says to me:
- ‘You drank. Much too much. To me, you are again a small child. You don’t have the
endurance of a Danny or a Simone! And you need sleep. Sleep is what gives you the most
strength, and it’s 4 a.m.! You need to be at the studio at one o’clock. You must get up at
11! And finally, you, Auntie, you should have known enough to have stopped her!’
When she wakes me, I feel very dull and sluggish. I tell myself that going through the
hands of the studio’s hairdresser will wake me up: in fact the opposite occurs; I fall asleep
under the comb.
Rehearsal. It doesn’t have last night’s happy atmosphere. Is it because the technicians
aren’t influenced by the element of surprise? I belt my song out into silence. At the end of
‘En écoutant mon cœur chanter’ I hear Johnny’s dry voice:
- ‘The voice isn’t good. It’s not good at all.’
I know it. In the dressing-room, awaiting the show, Auntie worriedly prepares the
infusion, and Johnny only comes in to say, ‘I beg you not to open your mouth before the
start of the show.’
I know that I made a mistake. But how to resist this phenomenon Danny Kaye, so
marvellous, full of charm, of mischievousness?
The program begins. At the end of the number he hugs me: ‘Fabulous!’ This reassures
me, but not for long. The minute we’re in our bungalow, Johnny explodes:
- ‘If you had worked like you did yesterday at rehearsal, you would have knocked the
United States to the ground! This afternoon, it was you who was knocked to the ground!’
- ‘Danny said to me…’
- ‘Danny said it because he’s kind! But the truth is that you went down! What is it you
believe, Mireille? That America is just waiting you to conquer it? Pretty girls, girls who can
sing, girls with talent, there are queues and queues of them in managers’ offices! Girls who
are dying of hunger and poverty and want to end it. You, you have been resting on your
laurels for some time…! But you’re fragile. Your voice is fragile. Your physical health is
fragile. And unfortunately, I see that your spirit is also fragile!’
He slams the door, leaving to go find Nicole and Vincence in their bungalow.
I cry for the most part of the night, so much and so hard that the next morning, I am
hoarse. Auntie prepares me something to gargle in my throat. It’s a dreadful, joyless day,
one in which I must, in the frigid atmosphere of a studio, record ‘Mon credo’ in English…
Listening in the earphones, I hear the rustling of the recording reel. Naturally, I start in the
wrong place.
- ‘Again!’
The phonetic text is before me, looking so absurd and meaningless… Johnny will stop
me, it’s for certain. We start again, and again, and again. I look at the American technician,
who shrugs his shoulders.
- ‘We can’t understand anything you’re saying.’
I know that I’m stammering. I feel it like a cramp inside me… spreading all over my
body.
- ‘It’s useless to go on, Mireille.’
The apparatus in the cutting room is packed away. Auntie watches me, looking very
pale. She hands me my coat, my handbag, and we exit without a word. Johnny says nothing
to me in the car, except:
- ‘You won’t be doing the disc.’
That is then my second big failure. Only the movie remains… Joe Pasternak doesn’t
seem influenced by what Johnny calls my ‘terrible performance’. For him, it was a success.
Danny Kaye’s show had made his little star, as he persists in calling me, famous. He is
giving a cocktail party again, and his enthusiastic reception makes me, if not forget, then at
least put aside what had just happened. We arrive with Nicole and Vincence. And, the
moment we cross the threshold, Joe cries for everyone to hear:
- ‘Voila my little star!’
He stops the first waiter who walks past, asking me:
- ‘Vodka?’
And I respond, because I think it’s polite, and because with him drinking vodka is held
in great regard:
- ‘Yes, vodka!’
It’s strong, very strong. I don’t know what demon prompted me to take it. Is it to get
over the distress which has followed me for two days, a sign of my folly and weakness, that
I drink it? Joe, admiringly, hands me a second glass, which I empty as I had seen Danny
Kaye do: in one swallow. Johnny sends me a murderous look, but I don’t see it. I don’t
want to see it. On a subconscious level, there is perhaps an element of defiance. I don’t
really know, to speak frankly. I drink because otherwise I probably wouldn’t have had the
courage to stay. And impulsively I propose to Joe:
- ‘Would you like me to sing?’
- ‘Yeah!’
And, completely losing my head, I begin to sing from my repertoire, one song after
another…
The Americans in Hollywood adore these kinds of impulsive soirees, improvised and
laid-back, where one drinks a lot, where one speaks little, where a certain extravagance
stops one from being bored. My performance is met with joy and sweeps away all my
complexes. I know I have gone mad, that I’ve lost all control, but it’s a way of forgetting
the two preceding days. I forget who is present and where I am. I even sing songs that
aren’t mine to sing. ‘Je chante… je chante soir et matin,’ and off we go with Charles
Trenet! When I announce the ‘Marseillaise’, Auntie, horrified, drags me to the ladies’ room
to splash cold water on my face…
I thought I had experienced the full extent of Johnny’s anger, but no. Nicole leads
Vincence away to their bungalow, while in ours, he calls me all the names he can think of,
up to ‘slut’.
- ‘You sang like a drunken slut! You don’t even know what you’re doing anymore! I’m
not slapping you only because I’ve never yet hit a woman! But it’s over, Mireille. Do you
understand what I’m saying? I’m letting you drop. I’ve already taken a great blow with
Danny Kaye’s program. A second with a lost disc. As for your behaviour at Pasternak’s,
well…!’
- ‘They seemed quite happy,’ I say in my most quiet voice, utterly sober.
- ‘But I certainly wasn’t! Your voice was completely off. And Hedda Hopper was
sitting in a corner…!’
- ‘Is she a singer?’
He raises his hands to the sky:
- ‘No! She’s the most formidable gossip in Hollywood! She destroys reputations! I
wanted to make you into a superstar! In two days, you’ve ruined a year’s work! Do you
have any idea what I’ve risked for you? The abandonment of all my charges! Your royal
lifestyle! And you behave like a slut!’
Auntie, extremely dismayed, tries to calm him:
- ‘Johnny! Don’t use that word! She’s really a sweet girl!’
- ‘There! A sweet girl from a sweet, deserving family… I made a mistake! Her voice
misled me: I believed that the seed of a star was there! I believed that she was a second
Liza Minelli! But Liza was born to show business. She has it in her blood, like Johnny.
Children of the stage. Hallyday was practically born on it! He knows everything at once.
When I say to him: ‘I don’t like this song as much…’, he immediately shows me another
and goes onstage, without even needing a rehearsal! A genius!’
He seems suddenly disheartened, and that’s the worst thing of all. I think I prefer him to
be angry.
- ‘It must be true,’ he says. ‘That it’s not her fault. It’s mine. Until now, I have led her
by the hand. But my arms aren’t strong enough. I’m wrong, she’s not made for this
profession. She’s made, like her mother, to have fourteen children…’
- ‘But that’s not true, Johnny!’
I can’t let him say that:
- ‘All my life, I’ve thought of nothing but singing. I’m not happy unless I sing. I
couldn’t do anything else!’
And I flee to my room.
There is a long silence.
Auntie’s voice reaches my ears. She says to him that he can’t drop me now, that it
would be too cruel, that he can’t be responsible for throwing back into my previous life:
- ‘She has made tremendous efforts to leave it. Perhaps because she wasn’t born to
show biz… as you say. I don’t know what others are like, after all!’
I’ve never heard Auntie speak like this. Calmly, softly and clearly. She tells him again
that this year had been especially hard for me: from day to day, I go through a hell of
extreme emotions, of fans, detractors, triumphs and great pain.
- ‘Didn’t she sing, the night of her grandmother’s death, like a professional?’
Johnny recommences yelling… a little less fiercely. But is it professional not to be able
to articulate a song in English, after six months of lessons? To spoil one’s career in the
United States, upon which hung so many hopes…? Auntie says that she understands; she
knows the investment: all the money the journeys, the lodgings, the wardrobe have cost.
Johnny calms down slightly: it’s not a question of money! He has never lived for money!
Money is made to circulate and to do a job. He has already had unsuccessful business
ventures… but in Mireille’s case, it’s different, he invested himself, completely, with no
going back. To the point of renouncing everything else:
- ‘You have to take into account that I am obliged to devote so much time to her that I
almost never see my wife and child any more!’
His anger returns, fills him up:
- ‘If she continues like this, to drink, to go to bed late, to behave frivolously, in three
months she won’t have a voice left. And without a voice, there will no longer be a Mireille
Mathieu!’
Still calm, with an ocean’s supply of gentleness, Auntie responds that certainly, I was ‘a
little tipsy’… because I didn’t know what alcohol was, that I accepted to be polite, but we
had never drunk any at home!
- ‘She won’t do it again, I swear to you… Johnny, you cannot let her go. Not now, in
any case. Not a few of hours before Christmas… you cannot do that to her.’
Another silence. And then:
- ‘So be it. I accord you a respite until the New Year.’
The door slams.

The next day, he speaks no more of it. Life goes on.


Johnny has decided to celebrate Christmas in Disneyland. I am delighted because last
time I only saw this fairytale kingdom in passing, with barely enough time to take a few
photos in front of the Castle of Sleeping Beauty…
One of the last ‘attractions’ built on demand was, if I’m not wrong, finished six years
ago. We have to queue to see it. It means neither more nor less than a meeting with Mr.
Lincoln. The crowd which gathers in the theatre has the impression of being in
Washington’s Congress Hall. We are admitted, in groups of about two hundred, into a room
furnished with graceful armchairs. The sight puts the public into such a state of meditation
that I say to myself: ‘this man is their Jeanne of Arc.’
It’s like a hallucination. It seems as though he’s there in flesh and blood. He gets up
from his armchair, faces us, looks at us, speaks to us…
- ‘What is he saying, Johnny?’
- ‘He speaks of faith, of God protecting the United States… It’s the text of one of his
real speeches…’
He speaks, he lives, this president who died in 1865. (I read the plaque under his
portrait as we came in.) The skin, the eyelashes, even the wrinkles are visible… I am
amazed and frightened at the same time. What if one day there were no more shows except
ones like this? With automatons instead of artists? Uncle Jo won’t have to worry about a
glass of vodka too much, or about a loss of voice. Everything would be perfect, with no risk
involved. I can’t forget the story told by Joe Pasternak, in which Mario Lanza sings in a
film, with someone else’s body doing the acting. Why shouldn’t this body one day be that
of an almost-perfect robot? I shiver at the thought of it.

For Vincence, the holidays continue in Hawaii. For me, this isn’t true at all, for, if we
are here one more, it is for a Japanese television film. I must perform my ‘heroic feats’
again: I must climb into a canoe steered by a Hawaiian girl dressed essentially in only a
flower garland, and navigate among the dolphins. Vincence, who is not in the least afraid of
water, finds this ‘brilliant!’. I also have to fish for barracudas… I don’t know how, but I
manage to catch ten of them… to the great joy of the Japanese cameraman, who is much
more impressed by this, it seems to me, than by my singing.
Johnny hasn’t spoken ‘show-biz’ to me. I almost ask myself, whether, in his mind, he
has already decided to drop me…
Now that we have returned to Los Angeles, it’s time to rehearse for Andy Williams’
show. Andy Williams is a crooner with a warm voice, adored by families because his
repertoire includes all the most famous songs of Gershwin and Cole Porter, and all the
traditional songs. His show is also an annual custom which no one wants to miss. Paul
Mauriat has done the orchestration, and Andy, who has a very good ear, finds it superb
(Paul Mauriat doesn’t yet know that he will make a brilliant career in the United States).
Paul has made me work for an hour to warm up the voice as well as possible. I have stage
fright. ‘Un homme, une femme’ and ‘Paris en colère’, two film songs… it ought to please
them. The rehearsal begins. I have my eye on the clock. The thing is, I want to phone into
Avignon to wish them a happy New Year. But on the deck around me everything is
disorganised, the lights are being regulated, the last details are being seen to. Auntie, who is
there with the infusion, says to me softly:
- ‘If I were you… I’d forget Avignon.’
- ‘But no, Auntie, that’s impossible!’
- ‘I should forget it… for the moment. Concentrate. If you have to try again twice, four
times, six times, it will delay your communication even more.’
- ‘Then you do it, Auntie, tell them: I’m singing, but I’m thinking of them… the
moment I’ve finished, I’ll call them.’
I imagine them: gathered at M. Colombe’s to watch television. Because, while I’m
being directly transmitted here with Andy, I am shown in France on two channels, wishing
everyone ‘a happy new year 1967’ on one, and appearing in Reichenbach’s film on the
other.
‘Miss Ma-ti-ou’: that’s me, they’re calling. The lights come on. My nose glistens. I
must reapply my foundation. It is 3 p.m. That would make it just before midnight in
France…
We do eight retakes… 3:45… it’s almost one o’clock in the morning. Perhaps it will be
easier with ‘Paris en colère’. Not really. The orchestra is rearranged… Johnny’s voice
sounds from the cutting cabin:
- ‘We’re beginning again for you, Mireille: I want you to give it more force! It’s a war
song, it’s not ‘La Dernière Valse’…’
I try again. With a little ‘click’: uncle Jo spoke to me as he used to. No, he hasn’t
dropped me. Not even this time.
The rehearsal ends: it’s 4:30. I descend upon the telephone.
- ‘Hello? Mama?’
No. It’s Mme Colombe. They left, she tells me, a quarter of an hour ago. They waited,
but... the children were tired, they were falling asleep in all the corners. After all, they’d
been there since 9 p.m. to watch ‘The Fairytale of Mireille Mathieu’… it was a very long
day for the little ones. They said, leaving, that tomorrow the drug store owners will be with
their cousins, obviously, since it’s holiday time. The book shop next door will also be
closed. But if I want to leave a message, she or her husband will gladly pass it on the next
day.
- ‘Thank you, Madame Colombe. Please tell Mama that I wish her a beautiful little boy;
and to Papa, lots of happiness and tombstones; to Matite, Christiane, and Marie-France, a
good husband; to…’
- ‘Wait, I’m writing it down… to Marie-France too, a good husband?’
- ‘Yes. It’s not easy to say everything you want to say when you’re far away… if I
mention them all, it will take too long. So, in general, lots of joy to everybody. And to you
and M. Colombe also!’
- ‘The same for you, Mireille! You were cute on the set!’
It’s the first time that I haven’t wished them a good year to come. I promise myself that
it will be the last: next year, in their new house, they will have a phone! That I swear. I grip
my medallion with the Virgin etched on it in my hand. Papa had given it to me. I feel as
though I’m being watched. I am no longer afraid of anything. I will continue. And Johnny
too, with me. I swear it!
And it’s the turn of Los Angeles to sound midnight. Everyone exchanges embraces.
There are cars hooting, fireworks, lights everywhere. Champagne. ‘Happy New Year’, says
Mireille to uncle Jo, and uncle Jo replies ‘Happy New Year’, adding in a softer voice:
- ‘You can thank your Auntie. If she hadn’t been there, I would have let you go. Thank
you and all my best wishes, Irène.’
She smiles, with her sweet modest air. For me, this year almost ended in a catastrophe. I
am not sorry to see it off, despite all that it has brought me. I feel as though I have lived
three lives in twelve months: that of little Mimi, the small daughter of the stonemason, in
whose family new children appear almost every year; that of Mireille Mathieu, the new idol
who aspires to conquering America, and that of Mireille, who goes from being one or the
other of the first two, sometimes balancing on one foot, often with a blindfold over her
eyes, as when she used to play hopscotch or hide-and-seek with her friends…

Paris. The crisis which we have gone through remains a secret. Nadine welcomes us
back with a splendid smile and a file with press cuttings, requests for interviews and
articles. This avalanche has been triggered by François Reichenbach’s film:
- ‘You cannot even imagine the impact! Here! Read ‘Le Nouveau Candide’! What a
change in tone! Listen: ‘…Reichenbach has just offered her his prayer-stool for communion
in the most secret of artistic and intellectual chapels’! And that’s nothing in comparison to
this: here is a whole page which Edmonde Charles-Roux has devoted to her in ‘The
Literary Figaro’!’
Johnny, uncle Jo, settles himself into his favourite armchair in our living room, like a
great cat digesting a fat little mouse:
- ‘I knew what I was doing by placing you in the paws of that Lautrec of the camera…
this will rid you of any heartache (and he reads): ‘The old public is dead, having fallen
victim to television. What has this led to? The equality of the performer; we are at once
witness and accomplice to him, to them all. Thanks to the small screen, we are introduced
to what has been for so long a fenced-off, forbidden paradise. We become intimate with the
celebrities. This woman, this young girl whom twenty thousand people are applauding, we
have seen in haircurlers; surprised her in the back of a car, looking harassed; and her
fatigue, her disorder has made her more familiar and closer to us. We share her fear and, in
the glare of the spotlights, await with her the first thunder of applause. If the trial ends in
triumph, the TV viewer had the right to assert that he has lived with this singer through a
true fairytale.
‘This is what I thought as I watched the televised documentary which François
Reichenbach has dedicated to Mireille Mathieu. Some people have blamed him for being
interested in a debutante, whose talent and future seem so insecure. They forget that the
small screen in the proper medium for presenting and assuring phenomena such as this one.
‘Will Mireille Mathieu last? Will she still be spoken of in three or four years? What
does it matter! The main thing is the adventure her life is. And how can you not rebel
against the slanderers who seem to take a perverted pleasure in always predicting the
worst? A diligent debutante, looking like the street girls Poulbot painted, only well-washed,
with apple-red cheeks and brilliant skin, with wide-set eyes, like a little bull from
Camargeau, this girl is making an entrance, her way lit up before her, far from the sinister
universe of ‘yeah, yeah’ music, who always projects her brave voice, sometimes sour and
resembling a green grape, but nonetheless a voice that makes the sun rise, as they say in the
poor quarter of Avignon where Mireille was born; and what do our slanderers do? This
voice, they say, is stolen from Piaf, and she owes all her popularity to this theft. A comment
all the more absurd if you consider that a voice is owned from birth by she who possesses
it. Why doubt it? There is no lack of arguments for it, I know a great many of them.
‘In Avignon, in Croix-des-Oiseaux (written with a provincial accent, as Croix-aux-
Zozos), they remember perfectly how Mireille sang as she worked in an envelope-making
factory. She sang at school, she sang in church, she sang all day long. They knew this all
the way to Pontet, where my mother lives.
‘’She sang in no other voice than her own since childhood,’ I was assured by Mme X,
our long-time neighbour, who has been spellbound by the tale of Mireille Mathieu. At a
little over fifty years old, this scrupulous housewife had discovered a new vocation. She is
delirious with poetry. Her eyes, her hands she uses to find rhymes at the bottoms of
cooking pots and underneath the beds. Then she goes out to a disreputable bar, where she is
joined by a sombre young man in a dark shirt, who strums his guitar. She recites her songs
to him, setting them to music. She speaks of ‘going up’ to Paris, and the feel of her
imagined success send shivers through her whole body. Her husband doesn’t hide his
anxiety. The success of the little Mathieu haunts the entire region.
‘Thus the story in which François Reichenbach makes us participate is not a banal one.
By inviting us on the plane which will take the girl from Avignon to New York, he allows
us to share in her surprises and adventures. But that isn’t the purpose of his commentary.
What else does he reveal to us? The day to day existence of this young woman with the
makings of a celebrity, fulfilling her dream career with a conscientious hand. Never the
least weariness, never the smallest sign of discontent. Where are the stars of long ago?
Where are the ones who, not so far back in time as to be forgotten, threw tantrums, were
inaccurate, made me wait by their doors for an entire day in those times when I was a
reporter? As even Piaf did in the hotel on the Rue de Penthièvre where she lived…
‘Mireille Mathieu knows what she owes to the magazines, to television. Everything, or
almost everything. Therefore she is at their disposal. Upon her arrival in New York, when a
photographer ordered her to go back up the stairs which she was descending, she obeyed
him at once. Her professional devotion is unfailing; it’s evident from the moment she
awakes, when she appears, before setting to work, clothed in a simple morning robe, made
of flower-print cretonne… (it is a poem, this dressing-gown. The great ballerinas
sometimes wore garments as disarming as this one at home). It is even more evident in the
fact that the room next to hers is that of Johnny Stark, her Pygmalion, a strong favourite,
with a physique resembling that of the bear-keepers which long ago could be encountered
in Bohemia, a handsome man whom she follows everywhere and consults ceaselessly:
‘Johnny, am I ridiculous in this hat?… Johnny, what must I say to her, to Lily Pons?…
Johnny, should I or shouldn’t I exchange a kiss with her?’; at which Johnny then yells from
the next room: ‘Articulate properly, I can’t understand anything…’, and which Mireille
meekly repeats, articulating. She has the sharp teeth of a carnivore and the mouth of a true
singer. One of those mouths made to launch music higher, further, louder…
‘François Reichenbach explores with a magnifying glass the face of a debutante, herself
well on the road of discovering that face, freeing herself gradually, successfully more often
than not, of the manners, the moves, the style of Piaf. In the face of all the evidence,
Mireille Mathieu does not feel distress. She doesn’t know misfortune or grief; as a little
girl, she did not lack love, nor health, nor bread. It is this ‘anti-Piaf’ which we have awoken
to. François Reichenbach shows her to us with her faults and her commuter’s spite, with
what is natural to her and also with what she already owes to her Pygmalion. He leaves her
illusions for us to see. She appears before us, completely unconscious of life: a child of the
streets who is not yet sure of her capabilities, but who already rules, be it at her risk and
peril.’’
A silence. Then Johnny:
- ‘A superb article. She writes well, this lady. What, Mireille?’
- ‘Oh yes! …she writes very well.’
I think that she has only made one mistake: in thinking that I know no pain… but, after
all, no one will know it but me. It will remain a secret I will bury with me.
- ‘I would like to see it nonetheless, this film!’
- ‘You will see it tomorrow. François has kept the screening room ready for you.’
The next day arrives. That François, though… he has already left to return to Mexico!
But his voice remains with us, commenting on the film.
- ‘At the beginning,’ he says, ‘I didn’t want to hear of it because I was afraid of
betraying another singer… I went to the States as a witness. I had an impartial eye… I
never knew whether she acted the clown or not: she is after all a great comic actress.’
(Here, I burst out laughing). ‘But I was won over by the simplicity of her heart. She is a
child marked by a sacred spark.’ (And here, my eyes fill with tears). ‘…Her father said to
me one evening in Avignon: ‘The eyes, the voice, the talent, come from my side. The rest is
all thanks to her mother.’’ (That’s true, Papa!). ‘Her mother said: ‘At the start, there was a
great emptiness in the house. But with the radio, the television, it was as though she was
always with us.’ You must understand what it is, the Sports Palace in Montreal, what it is to
sing before twenty thousand people who don’t know you, who remember only Edith Piaf.
She arrived there, looking very small, almost minuscule. The next day, all Canada was
buying her long-playing discs, twenty-five thousand of them. Absolutely unbelievable!…
Little by little, during the making of the film, I learned to know her, to understand her
idiosyncrasies, and she became natural to me.’ (Oh! He has filmed me in a shop where
there was a green glass thing full of a blue liquid, and where the vendor said to me: ‘It is a
measure of your deep feeling! You’ve won us all!’ And the liquid began to boil!… Oh! He
also shot me wringing my hands before going onstage… Oh! but why do I set my feet so
far apart as I walk, like Charlot!).
- ‘Well? How do you find yourself, Mireille?’
- ‘Clumsy. Not always. But sometimes.’
- ‘Exactly!’ Says uncle Jo.
Part Three
Conquering the world

From the Thames to the Rhine

The beginning of the year 1967 was lit up for me by my contact with Maurice
Chevalier. It seems strange to say this of a gentleman of whom it is said in our parts, when
taking his age into account, that ‘he is closer to midnight than to midday.’ When I arrived at
La Louque, his villa, he was shining because Pierre Delanoë (the songwriter for Bécaud and
Hugues Aufray) had brought him a song which he adored:
- ‘I will reserve it for my eightieth birthday (September 12th of next year). At the end of
my recital at the Theatre of Champs-Elysées, as they’re thinking that I’ve said all I have to
say, I’ll reappear onstage, bow, and sing:

Quand j’aurai cent ans, cent ans, cent ans


Et que le bon Dieu me fera des avances
Je dirai: attends, attends, attends
Je suis amoureux, c’est la vie qui commence!

‘I think that’s a very good idea. I will make a furore! And going on from this, do you
know what’s happened to me, my little Mireille? Montreal wants me to sing at the
International Expo in July! Twenty exceptional performances in a great thingamajig with
twenty thousand spectators, a set full of super tricks to set off an enormous programme,
and, all of a sudden, in the middle of all this, me, alone in the light of the projectors with
my little piano, and behind the keyboard, my Fred, who is almost as old as I am! I will say
to myself: it’s all right, Maurice, you haven’t gone soft and senile yet! Keep holding on!’
I adore M. Chevalier… (‘Call me Maurice,’ he says, ‘or I’ll feel like I’m eighty!’). I
feel that he sincerely wants to help me. He goes to search for his tramp’s costume in the
depths a wardrobe; he wore it in his film ‘Ma Pomme’ in 1950, and it will inspire me when
I sing his song in the show ‘Thirty-six Candles’, presented by Jean Nohain.
- ‘It is not strictly necessary to go onstage dressed as a real tramp! It would have a
saddening effect. We must push for a caricature: patched coat, bits off string hanging off,
huge shoes which barely stay on your feet… and above all, do not put on too much make-
up!’
- ‘Ah! Monsieur Chevalier! If you could only say that to her every day!’ Says Johnny.
‘It’s an obsession she has!’
- ‘I promise, Monsieur Chevalier.’
- ‘She’s stubborn, hein?’
We rehearse. He finds that I’ve made great progress since New York. He had seen the
duet with Danny Kaye, broadcast as part of ‘Télé-Dimanche’, and thinks that I was much
more at ease with the seven songs I sang live from Paris. Johnny tells him why, and
recounts my crazy behaviour in the Chinese kitchen.
- ‘Ah! Mimi! Mimi! Let that be a good lesson! We belong to a dreadful profession: we
cannot permit ourselves any kind of frivolity. Did you notice what Danny did? He almost
doesn’t eat, and he only pretends to drink!’
As he will be in Johannesburg on the day of ‘The Thirty-Six Candles’, we will have to
establish a line to communicate, and that’s why he keeps on making me rehearse so hard.
We start again, again and again. He asks me whether I think I’d enjoy doing ‘Thirty-Six
Candles’?
- ‘It’s like a dream for me: I adore dressing up! I adore having different roles: first
doing a sketch with Roger Pierre and then dancing a waltz with Chazot! A waltz by Strauss,
wearing a velvet skirt and a corset! The opposite of the tramp! I especially want to continue
dancing; it is so much fun…! And how to explain this to you: normally I am very timid.
But when I am disguised, I would dare anything! Do you understand it, Monsieur
Chevalier?’
- ‘Very well. It proves that you are an actress. And I maintain what I said: you are a
comedian!’
Me…! Who cries with or without a reason, even during a lovely sunset – only because I
want it to stay.
Johnny is true to his plans: he has included ‘En écoutant mon cœur chanter’ in the
programme of ‘The Thirty-Six Candles’… and it’s in English. This causes me a lot of
stress. Line Renaud, who is also appearing in the show, takes pity on me. She makes me
rehearse it thoroughly, phrase by phrase.
- ‘With our little songs, we are doing more for France than all those politicians with
their speeches! Always remember that, Mimi. It will help you when singing in foreign
languages. Let’s go:

All of a sudden my heart sings


When I remember little things…’

Songs also have a strange fate sometimes. This one was written by Jamblan. Then, after
the war, Charles Trenet composed new words for it, which became mine: En écoutant mon
cœur chanter... They are the ones which have been translated into English, for the purpose
of taking the British and American charts by storm.
The stage-hands for ‘The Thirty-Six Candles’ are those that did ‘Télé-Dimanche’. They
like me a lot, as though I were their mascot. After the show, they offer me champagne.
Everyone is cheerful: the duet with Maurice has been a success. Jean Nohain is very moved
by it. We toast our glasses to the health of each person present. I know that Auntie and
Johnny aren’t letting me out of their sight. And again I hear the voice of Maurice speaking
in my ear: ‘We cannot permit ourselves any frivolity.’ So, while smiling beautifully and
saying ‘your health’ to everybody, I resort to the trick of appearing to drink instead of
really drinking, which is better than drinking without appearing to!
Up until now, Johnny has run ‘operation Mireille Mathieu’ without telling me his plans.
But after our crisis in Los Angeles, having become very close to Aunt Irène, he asks her
take part in any discussions dealing with contracts or projects. And he also insists that I be
present.
- ‘It’s your career, Mimi. You must follow it!’
- ‘Yes, but I… I find it annoying to talk about money.’
- ‘It doesn’t irritate you at all when you’re spending it.’
- ‘Well, since we have some at the moment…’
- ‘With reasoning like that, one fine day there won’t be any left. You need to know,
Mimi, what we invest in, why we invest in it, for example, how much the voyages to
America cost… this month, we will assail London…’
And he unfolds a great plan to us, saying that if, as he hopes, I manage to perform
successfully in the TV shows there, it will open a way into America, since English shows
are broadcast to the continent.
He’s been plotting this since last September, when he met up with one of his friends,
Leslie Grade, the director of the channel ITV, brother of Lord Bernard Delfond, the widely
known producer in charge of the ‘Royal Performance’. Leslie, having a villa in Sainte-
Maxime and frequently spending his weekends in France, has seen practically all my
appearances on television. As he finds that I have a wonderful voice, he wants to make me
do ‘Saturday Night at the Palladium’ for my first incursion of London.
This is a very popular programme, and it takes place in a theatre which can be
compared to our Olympia. English law does not permit plays to be performed on Sundays,
TV has taken advantage of this, and the British public, which on this day does not really
have much to distract it, quite naturally turns the knob on the television. That is, it watches
‘Sunday Night’…
- ‘You know the stakes: it’s up to you to win the game!’
London. I have a crazy desire to sit on the top deck of a red bus, to take a boat down the
Thames, to see up close the fur hats of the royal guards, and the great bell, to stop in a park,
to look at the photos of artists in the entryways of the theatres on Piccadilly… it’s Saturday,
and there are queues everywhere. Oh! the street musicians… what droll costumes they
wear! There are so many mother-of-pearl buttons that they form fantastic patterns, like
embroidery. Uncle Jo explains that Cockneys, the inhabitants of London’s more populous
quarters, have invented this way to form a contrast with the disastrous and bourgeois
fashion of the end of the last century. And that music-hall has jumped at it. I would love to
have a song which would permit me to dress like this!
- ‘You really do love flashy things!’ He says.
I admit it. Sequins, feathers, and now mother-of-pearl buttons! I know… it doesn’t go
with ‘Mon credo’… but perhaps we could buy these buttons as souvenirs? We have no
time! We’re not here to amuse ourselves. We will return if I succeed on television here...
but right now we’re stuck in a traffic jam, surrounded by cabs which are not at all
aerodynamic-looking, siting high on their wheels, crawling along slowly like great black
beetles; uncle Jo, annoyed, taps his wristwatch at the chauffeur of the limousine to indicate
the lateness of the hour. Imperturbably, the latter mutters something.
- ‘What did he say to you?’
- ‘If I understood correctly, I believe he advised me to exercise my calves a little if I
want to go quicker… at the same time as calling us ‘froggies’. It’s an affectionate word for
‘French’.’
I always take Johnny at his word. I look up ‘frog’ and ‘shy’ in my small pocket
dictionary. And, to the first journalist I meet behind the scenes at the Palladium, I declare
with an apologetic smile:
- ‘I am a shy frog.’
And I discover that a laughing Englishman makes enough noise for ten frogs in concert.
- ‘What did he say to me?’
- ‘That you’re a comedian!’
I’ve already heard that somewhere…
There are theatres which appeal to me as soon as I step through the door. Especially old
theatres; they have a spirit, an atmosphere. This is the case with the Palladium. It has the
dignified façade of an opera, with its columns and balconies. The hall is also very dignified,
with a royal box… and two thousand three hundred seats. It is here that the famous Royal
Performance takes place, the gala given for the benefit of veteran artists in the presence of
the Royal family. I know that Johnny’s dream is to see me perform in it. It’s evidently an
honour for an artist to be invited, as no one can impose a programme on the Queen… last
year, Sammy Davis Junior and Jerry Lewis were the singers… with Juliette Gréco and
Gilbert Bécaud, while Tommy Steele, star of ten years thanks to his shows, represented
English song.

All of a sudden my heart sings


When I remember little things
The wind and air upon your face…

- ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying too well… but it seems very pretty to me,’
says Aunt Irène.
And Leslie Grade confirms it: ‘Lovely! Lovely! Lovely!’ I will return to do ‘Sunday at
the Palladium’. But when? Our schedule is already full! Johnny leafs through the diary:
now we are to depart for the television festival in Monaco. This is at the request of the
Princess Grace, who assures us that there is a Mireille Mathieu fan club at the palace…
afterwards we will rejoin Maurice Chevalier in Gstaad. No, no, not for a holiday! For a
gala!
- ‘Oh! Johnny! I have never done any winter sports! Could we stay there two days?
Enough time for me to try skiing?’
- ‘So that you break a leg and we’re obliged to cancel Montreal! And New York! Where
you’re doing ‘April in Paris’!’
Leslie insists. Lord Delfond is enchanted, it seems. If I return to London two or three
times for ‘Sunday at the Palladium’ it is almost certain that the Queen, who adores France
and French song, will then ask for Mireille Mathieu.
- ‘The Royal Performance! Do you understand it, Johnny?!’ Says Leslie. ‘All artists
dream of it!’
He understands perfectly. I am certain that his mind is already made up. But he has
always been like this, uncle Jo. As we say: ‘Whatever the priest sings, the child choruses
along!’
- ‘Calm yourself, Leslie. We’ll find a Sunday… before Montreal, perhaps, if Mireille is
up to scratch on her songs, and another, perhaps after our return from the USSR…’
- ‘Since when have you had the idea of preaching the Gospel to the Russians?’
- ‘Since you came to an agreement with them to share Napoleon’s skin!’
After this, they drink some wine. And me… I only pretend to drink. I would like to
return to London, of which I’ve seen nothing, very much…
- ‘Hello, Mimi! It’s Papa. We’ve found a house!’
- ‘No, you can’t be serious? Oh! I’m so happy for you! Where is it? What is it like?
Who found it for you?’
- ‘Wait! Don’t speak so fast: we can’t follow you! You know, they offered me castles!
Under the pretext that I’m the father of Mireille Mathieu! But I said in response to all their
‘well-wishing’: that’s not a reason, that isn’t! One must know one’s place. Me, I don’t want
to be the lord of a manor, it’s not my style. I remain a stone cutter and, if possible, I don’t
want to be far from the cemetery…’
- ‘Well, well?’
- ‘Well, it was a miracle! I don’t know whether it’s all the candles you burned to Saint
Rita…’ (I hear Mama’s voice: ’But no, Roger! For houses you pray to the Virgin Mary.
The little one knows it.’) ‘In short, you know where the Rue Esprit-Requiem is?’
- ‘Yes. Next to the church!’
- ‘Well then, it’s there, the great white house on the right…’
- ‘The great white house, I’ve seen it! I’ve seen it! But that’s not far from the pointy
house!’
- ‘Yes!’
- ‘Oh! It makes me so glad. You won’t be disoriented!’
- ‘No! Except we’ve never had such luxury: there are eleven rooms!’
- ‘But that’s not too much! It’s just right!’
- ‘A big balcony… and a garden… Youki will be happy… will you be able to come and
see it? Because it’s ‘your’ house?’
- ‘It’s difficult… we’re going to Germany, returning to London and then going to New
York again for ‘April in Paris’, all this in one month… but don’t worry, Papa, about the
payment. I can settle it, I’m sure I can. How much is it worth?’
- ‘I mustn’t miscalculate these new francs… in short, twenty-two million of the old
ones. It’s not too much?’
- ‘No, no, it’s not too much. I’m going to work like a horse, you know: things are going
well, very well. I’m even making progress in English. A Scotsman is giving me lessons…’
- ‘So he has a Scottish accent?’
- ‘It doesn’t matter, for me it’s like Chinese anyway.’
- ‘Does he have a skirt?’
- ‘No. He doesn’t wear one in Paris. But perhaps when he’s at home… I’ll ask him. I’ll
call you tomorrow from uncle Jo’s office, for the solicitor and all that. But, I say, the
fourteenth will be born in the new house! Oh! I’m so happy!’
- ‘No he won’t! I’m going to go to the maternity hospital,’ says Mama, who has picked
up the phone. ‘I’m used to it. But we’ll both return at once to Esprit-Requiem!’
It’s several hours before leaving for Baden-Baden that I learn the news: Mama has been
delivered of a beautiful boy weighing three kilos eight hundred. Papa tells me that she’s
doing well, and Vincent too. I ring off with nostalgia: I would have so liked to be there, as
for the birth of Béatrice… it seems far, suddenly, that day… When was it? In 1964, May
10th… She is not even three years old, and I have the impression of having lived for ten…
On the plane to Karlsruhe, I imagine Vincent. With a baby’s silky skin, little fingers
which catch your index like the feet of a bird on its perch; I didn’t hear his first gurgles, I
did not see the dark look of a small animal still in the night, which lightens little by little,
when he understands that he is in an affectionate world… I remember that this is what
struck me at Roger’s birth… is it already apparent that he’s going to be pert like Jean-
Pierre, or angelic like Rémi? I feel completely empty. Empty of him.
-Uncle Jo, Mme Colombe will be the godmother of Vincent. Will you be his
godfather?’
- ‘Of course, Mireille.’
- ‘I would like to give him a savings cheque-book. May I?’
- ‘Naturally you may, Mireille. Your bank account permits it.’
- ‘…But if I give him one, is it not a little unfair towards the others? I could also do it
for Matite, Christiane, Marie-France…’
- ‘Don’t recite the list, I know it. Yes, you can… but all the same, don’t think in
millions… speak of it with Aunt Irène. She knows your account balance.’ (And he adds
with his slightly mocking air, which always makes me laugh): ‘But now that you are
earning your way through life, I hope your father isn’t going to give your siblings double
mouthfuls!’

- ‘How cute Germany is!’


Uncle Jo doesn’t think that’s the most suitable word: discovering Germany through
Baden-Baden is like a stranger judging France by Evian. Everything enchants me here: the
very soft air, the beautiful mountains which surround without crushing, the bakeries…
(‘Careful, Mireille: not too much!’), the banks of the Oos, which we follow before coming
to the town centre. The car passes between the meeting-place of the hydrotherapy patients,
the Trinkhalle, and the sprawling, magnificent town garden with its own bandstand.
Unfortunately, almost all the people we see are bent or leaning on walking-sticks…
- ‘I won’t hesitate to come here to cure my rheumatism and my gout!’ Says uncle Jo.
- ‘But you don’t have any of those illnesses!’
- ‘I can feel them coming on… with all the worry you’re causing me! Look… here’s the
casino.’
- ‘Is there a theatre?’
- ‘There is everything: a theatre, a restaurant, a gaming parlour, ballrooms and concert
halls…’
- ‘I would like to sing there very much!’
- ‘Another time. We’re going to do a TV show. It’s more important. All Germany will
see you.’
He is probably right. But I prefer true concert halls. I miss the absence of the public as I
miss the absence of my little brothers.
The hotel is in the Lichtentaler Allee, which is a fantastic boulevard lined with
gorgeous trees which runs along the Oos…
- ‘Repeat the name to me,’ says Johnny.
- ‘Lichtentaler Allee…’
- ‘But you pronounce that well… it seems you take to German more quickly than to
English…’
- ‘It’s easier. You are allowed to pronounce all the syllables!’
Uncle Jo seems happy. He says that on our return he will find me a German teacher.
- ‘Oh! I’m going to muddle it all up with English!’
- ‘No, no. You’ll continue studying English with Harry. I’ll simply stock up on
whisky!’
Our Scotsman certainly loves whisky. Sometimes I ask myself whether he works so
assiduously because he likes me, or because at the end of the lesson (never at the
beginning!) uncle Jo gives him a bottle? We got to know him through Line Renaud, whom
he also taught. From time to time, he sighs mistily:
- ‘Ah! Line! Line!… She is terrific!’
And I understand that I am far from being so. He adds:
- ‘You’ll have your V-day too!’
A soldier in the last war, he has kept sacred memories of V-day, the day of Victory…
and victory is what he wishes for me.
Uncle Jo has given me a small German dictionary, and watches as I put my head in the
noose without fear, speaking to waiters, the maid, the producers and the stage hands…
- ‘Tell me, Irène, you didn’t by any chance have an ancestress who had an affair with a
German soldier? Or an old veteran who seduced a Gretchen?’
- ‘How can you say such things!’ She cries indignantly.
- ‘Don’t be angry. Such things happen. I’m joking. But you must admit that it’s
extraordinary to see Mireille, with her block for English, tripping away in German! All the
better. We’ll be able to make a disc in Goethe’s language, which she’ll make a better
success of than of Shakespeare’s!’
- ‘Listen, uncle Jo: ‘Goethe’ is simple, it is readable and pronounceable! Whereas
‘Shakespeare’… it takes eleven letters for two syllables, compared to six in ‘Goethe’!’
When we arrive in Düsseldorf, Johnny remarks at once:
- ‘Barclay has done some good work. Did you see? Your discs are in all the displays,
like in Baden-Baden.’
The Rhine is just as big as the Rhône… the man who has come to meet us at the airport
seems pleased that I find his city beautiful.
- ‘You must return! You’ll see how lovely it is by the banks of the Rhine in the
summer! We’ll take you to the Rheineterrassen, where there are open-air concerts and
where one can dance! You must have dinner at Zum Schiffen, it’s the oldest restaurant in
the city: it dates from 1628! You must…’
But, if I sing to my last breath, when will I have the time to see all this?

- ‘Hello, Mama?’
- ‘Ah! Mimi! Well, where are you, this time? I lose myself in all your comings and
goings!’
- ‘In Hamburg! It’s extraordinary, you know! Johnny says that it’s a theatre-city… it’s
true, it’s a little like being onstage, do you see?’
- ‘Was it demolished?’
- ‘Yes, but it has been reconstructed now. Looking at it ain’t painful.’
- ‘And your hotel, is it good?’
- ‘Of course, it always is with Johnny, you know him! It is called ‘Vier Jahreszeiten’, or
‘The Four Seasons’. It’s very pretty, because from here you can see the pools.’
- ‘Pools? Like in the Tuileries?’
- ‘No! Large pools, like lakes, you see? With lovely houses around them and many little
boats floating at their feet. It’s very gay: there is a pavilion which is like a restaurant, it
even has music… and there is also a magnificent port… with great ships which are open to
visitors… but you know, after the Richelieu… I know that it’s a huge ship, but after that, I
haven’t time.’
- ‘And do you eat well?’
- ‘You know hamburgers? I thought they were American. Well, no, they come from
Hamburg! One has a lot of fish… they love eel soup… they have another kind, made with
peas, pig heads and feet… you can barely stand up from the table afterwards! But they also
have beef gravy in which they put tiny meatballs rolled in semolina… I like that very
much.’
- ‘I’m satisfied, since Irène is with you. Did she take your blood pressure before you
left?’
- ‘Yes. Don’t worry. And you? And the baby?’
- ‘Everything is well. He’s gaining weight, as he ought to.’
- ‘I’m going to bring you the Bremer Klaben, it’s a kind of fruit cake with sugared fruit,
you’re going to love it. And, for Papa, a bottle of Doppelkümme, tonic made from cumin…’
- ‘But you won’t have time, my poor girl, to do all that shopping!’
- ‘Don’t worry about it, Mama. Everything is in or near the hotel… tiny shops and
kiosks…’

After the very pretty Hamburg theatre built of wood, the hall of the Berlin Philharmonic
Orchestra is another world. It is very recent. It runs like a great figure-of-eight, and was
opened four years ago. It is very near a Russian war memorial, guarded round the clock by
Soviet soldiers, which is surprising, since we’re in West Berlin… and we are also very
close to the Wall.
In the concert hall, the sound rises freely, unobstructed… it is a profound pleasure to
sing here. Europe 1 does a live broadcast of my first recital. When I come offstage, as
Auntie covers my shoulders with the shawl, uncle Jo tells me that I have never sung ‘Est-ce
que tu reviendras’ so well…

Est-ce que tu reviendras


Pour me dire que tu m’aimes
Est-ce que tu reviendras
Comme autrefois…?

Only I cannot forget the Wall. Even when, in the evening, on exiting the hotel
Kempinski, lights glitter everywhere, exuberant young people walk about and the neon
signs make you think that you are in Piccadilly or Broadway…

It’s very strange, after all this, to find oneself in the atmosphere of a ball like April in
Paris, in the New York Waldorf Astoria, packed with the cream of society. Not one gesture
overreaches another. The dresses are sumptuous; the jewellery is genuine; the titles are
noble. It seems as though all the names are famous. My nose is delighted by flowers and
perfumes… but Berlin remains in the back of my mind.
- ‘How do you explain this, Auntie? It’s America which won the war, Germany which
lost it. It’s Berlin which was cut in two, and it’s Berlin which is the liveliest!’
- ‘I don’t know, Mimi,’ says Auntie. ‘Perhaps because a city, when it is reborn after
having been shaved off the earth, is like someone who was thought lost, close to death, and
who has recovered. People then think of nothing except their joy…’
Perhaps also because the Germans are at peace, and the Americans at war. This
morning, the petite maid who brought us extra coat-hangers suddenly burst out sobbing: her
brother had been killed in Vietnam.
Germany doesn’t just remind me of itself in one way. We have barely returned to Paris
when the two Maurices, Jarre and Vidalin, ask to see us. The former has composed the
music for Litvak’s film ‘La Nuit Des Généraux’. The latter had found the theme music so
lovely that he had written words to it, and they would both like me to sing the resulting
song, ‘Adieu a la Nuit’:

Toi qui marches tête basse


Dans un désert sans mirage
Un jour, un jour, il faudra dire
Adieu à la nuit…
Moi j’ai suivi comme toi
Des chemins sans gloire
J’ai bu à des sources sans eau
Mais j’espère encore…

- ‘How do you like this song?’ Johnny asks me.


He knows that, if I don’t like it, it will be very difficult to make me remember it!
- ‘I like it very much…’
The music is beautiful, and the words could perhaps help some people. I remember that,
when I was younger, and had a grief or didn’t have the heart for work, I would put ‘Milord’
on the gramophone… and start again.
When I see the film, it has hardly any relation to the film, of which Maurice Jarre
warned me. It is a dark detective film set during the war.
Soon a poll is released, placing me far ahead of Sheila, Petula Clark and Dalida with
39%.
I ask uncle Jo whether he is happy.
- ‘… yes, you’ve surpassed the mall, but you know, it’s like a barometer, it goes up and
down. For the moment, you are giving them a hot temperature of 39 degrees. But never
forget that it can go down just as quickly.’
The horror.
- ‘But then what must I do? Constant work, like this? All my life, like this?
I have the slightly wounded tone which he recognises as a sign of tiredness.
- ‘Well, when you are tired, you should do what swimmers do: swim on your back. And
when you are recovered, return to the butterfly stroke!’
The same evening, Auntie brings me a parcel which has just arrived. It is a beautiful
box, tied with ribbons. It comes from the shop ‘Fauchon’… we weigh it: it’s not very
heavy. Then it’s not fruit or champagne – those would be in a basket. Oh! The box contains
another… also tied all over with ribbons. Candied chestnuts? They’re not in season.
Bonbons, chocolates? Oh! There is yet another box in that one, and each one is naturally
smaller than the last. Foie gras? Oh! Yet another! I undo the ribbon… and burst out
laughing. It’s half a box of spinach with the words: ‘Go, Popeye!’
Johnny likes to say that I’ve only cancelled three engagements in twenty years, which is
very few.
One of these cancellations took place in Innsbruck. The owner of the ‘Ariola’ disc
company for which I do a recording in Germany, Monty Luftner, is of Austrian origin and
very attached to his home country.
He invites me to do a very popular TV program in Innsbruck, a game show, with three
or four days of rehearsal.
The work goes very well, faster than expected, so well that the day before the direct
emission is miraculously free. Monty takes advantage of it to take us eight kilometres into
the mountains, to a typical inn… the Austrian dream! The view is terribly romantic, the
decor is simple but traditional, and the innkeeper is a large woman, a fan of a hundred kilos.
‘Mireille Mathieu…!’ She is going to serve us herself!
The menu has remained in my memory and in the stomach of the gourmet Johnny, who
can’t resist good cooking. Beef with wood-ruff, that perfumed Alpine plant, veal and fowl
liver meatballs… and, to finish, the famous Austrian omelette with vanilla sauce. A marvel.
A memory to be treasured for a long time…!
Three years later, I was asked to do a gala, and in the morning, there is a minor problem
with my voice. As though there are cats strolling along my vocal chords… no doubt, it is a
chill.
- ‘I’m going to call the doctor!’ Says Johnny.
- ‘But no, it will pass… I’ll gargle some Synthol…’
- ‘Mireille, this is very important! This will be transmitted to thirty German cities, you
have discs to record here…’
The doctor arrives. I really do have a red throat.
- ‘You’re imperilling her future!’ He says to Johnny, who had explained our programme
to him. ‘She needs two days of rest.’
He makes his prescription. Johnny calls another doctor to see me… who gives the same
diagnosis and draws up a second prescription. And we cancel the gala. To the great
disappointment, naturally, of the organisers, as the hall was packed, sold out in advance. I
gargle, I take my infusion, my honey… I don’t have a voice that sounds brand-new, but it
could have done well enough.
- ‘What are you talking about, with two medical certificates?’ Johnny says to me.
And, a little later:
- ‘If you wrap up well, we could perhaps go to have lunch at that little inn?’
I have never known whether he was worried about my health or his stomach. All the
same, we visited my great Austrian fan, who broke into cries of joy upon seeing us:
- ‘Mireille! Johnny! I’m going to give you the same meal you had last time!’
- ‘Yes, yes,’ says Johnny, already lighting up. ‘We don’t want any other one!’
The next day, I sing in Linz, a hundred kilometres from there, and then in Graz. The
local newspapers speak of my ‘dazzling’ voice. We have not dared return to Innsbruck ever
since!

The Germans consider me to be, and this may seem strange with my Avignon accent, a
German performer… in the same way that Romy Schneider was loved in France under the
title of a French singer. Germany is the country which adopted me almost at once,
completely, and where I go most often.
I have many strong memories of it. In 1968, we were in Stuttgart when the General de
Gaulle left for Baden-Baden. We were in Hamburg when he died.
Brought up under the influence of his cult at home, I was as upset as if I’d lost one of
my own family. It wasn’t until later that I realised: the people who expressed their
condolences to me right up until I got to the wings, or in the street, or in the hotel foyer,
were Germans…
For nine years, I only had one producer there, the same Christian Bruhn, the talented
composer who helped me record ‘La Paloma Adieu’ during my blackest year. He brought
me some of my biggest successes in terms of disc sales: ‘Acropolis Adieu’, ‘Santa Maria de
la mer’, ‘Mille colombes’… but the kick-off of my career in Germany I owe to two clever
moves by Johnny, who knows how to play the game.
At the beginning of 1969, I had nothing in the shops but the long-playing ‘La dernière
valse’ and ‘Qu’elle est belle’, orchestrated by Michel Legrand. The disc charmed Franz
Burda. An arts patron and a senator, he was the head of a press empire. Johnny met him
when he’d had the idea of sending Halliday, whose manager he then was, into military
service in Germany… following the example of Presley! (That’s how Halliday received his
sergeant’s stripes). Franz Burda had organised a renowned party in Munich, the Costume
Ball. This year, the program included the superstars, Ella Fitzgerald, Tom Jones and the
little Mathieu. To everyone’s general surprise, Johnny demanded that I perform at the
end… Paul Mauriat, who was there with our twenty-five musicians, panicked:
- ‘But you must be crazy!’
Johnny retorted that yes, he was, but he had decided that I would appear at the end of
the show, singing ‘Mon credo’ followed by ‘Paris en colère’. Popaul panicked even more:
- ‘But do you have any idea! In Germany! ‘Paris en colère’! A song about the
Resistance! The song of ‘Does Paris Burn?’!’
Johnny refuses to budge. The stars perform… and have a huge success. There are many
young people in the hall, gleaming in their evening dress. Ella has a triumph. And my
friend Tom Jones, my accomplice in London, the voice of the century, a super-triumph! I
see Mauriat’s face becoming haggard. And, to tell the truth, that of Johnny as well…
especially when ‘Mon credo’ floats over an ocean of indifference, despite the very kind
introduction of the famous host, whom the Germans adore, and who spoke of me as the
‘French revelation’…
I attack it:

Que l’on touche à la liberté


Et Paris se met en colère
Et Paris se met à gronder
Et le lendemain c’est la guerre…

Dead silence.
Finally, there is an explosion. On the three storeys, the young people rip off the flowers
on the decorations and throw them on the stage. There is a lot of hubbub; some veterans
protest: ‘This is a provocation!’, but they are drowned out by the applause.
When Johnny says to me, upon coming offstage, ‘you’ve brought down the house!’, I
believe him, but I also know that it was the song which brought it all down.
And the next day, who appears on the front pages of the papers? None of the superstars,
but the little Mireille, the ‘triumphant singer of the Costume Ball’. No one reproaches me
for singing ‘Paris en colère’, on the contrary: it is the song of reconciliation, of peace.
Franz Burda was enchanted. All at once I became a candidate for the Bambi, the prize
which he had created to reward the best artist of the year’s variety shows.
Some months later, I sing in Berlin for the Salon of Television. Johnny repeats his trick:
- ‘She’ll go last… or not at all!’
I had my first song in German to sing. It can be translated as ‘The wings of Paris’, but it
is typically German, exciting hand-clapping and foot-stomping. I had to do an encore! The
discs were fought over the next day as though they were… beer tankards!
The evening ends in a quaint little inn before sauerkraut and sausages. Dalida, the other
guest of this Salon, was with us. I remember very well her saying to me heatedly: ‘You did
so well! What a fantastic ending! It’s tremendous!’
Because Dalida, ever since my first performance in Olympia where she climbed three
storeys to congratulate me in my tiny debutante’s dressing-room, has always shown herself
to be like this: incapable of a jealous glance, of a malicious thought, a wicked word (so rare
in the ‘theatrical jungle’!). Dali followed her path, so beautiful and unique… her loss has
left me with an infinite sadness. We never told her enough that we loved her. We who sing
of love, we don’t always have time to speak of it to those we love… she seems to sleep in
her white dress, waiting to be awoken. I would like that so very much…

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